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What To Do When The Dead Linger: Exploring Hauntedness as a Material Property of Objects

What To Do When The Dead Linger

Exploring Hauntedness as a Material Property of Objects

Rosemary Hanson Received October 1, 2021.

Citation: Hanson, Rosemary. 2021. "What To Do When the Dead Linger: Exploring Hauntedness as a Material Property of Object". Epoiesen. DOI: http://dx.doi.org/10.22215/epoiesen/2021.10

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Rosemary Hanson is a freelance archeological illustrator and 3D modeler (rosemary.m.hanson@gmail.com) ORCID: 0000-0002-4371-4981
Fig 1. Photograph of a clip-on earring from the late 20th century, composed of a brass mount and 8 glass gems. The earring was inherited from a female relative in the late 1990s and is currently in the possession of the author.
This is a story of an earring.

An ugly earring.

Cheaply made and cheaply bought, it is meant to resemble a queenly diamond in glass and brass. A large, 3 lobed brown jewel sits beneath a crown of small, round, apricot-colored gems in a color palette that now seems a stereotype of the 1970s. These faux diamonds have been haphazardly set into a thin, metal clip that pinches and weighs the ear unpleasantly. It was presumably once part of a pair, but its twin has long ago been lost in the back of a drawer or the case of a second-hand shop or (most likely) underneath 200ft of Tacoma landfill. It is, without doubt, an object out of place. I keep it in my jewelry box, but I have no intention of wearing it. It has no functionalist, aesthetic, or rational role in my life and there is really no reason that I should keep it.
Fig 2. Digitally framed photograph of the earring’s original owner, Bea Turnbull Samel.
Yet, I cling to it: not for what it is, or what it was, or what it could be; not for its value, not for its beauty, not for the hope that I may someday wear it. I cling to it because it was hers: the property of a great aunt, Bea, now dead. I keep it because it is full of memories: the memory of childhood visits and the smell of old perfume and hospital disinfectant. The memory of a somber distribution that I did not understand, and a jewelry box that I was too small to carry. The memory of a quiet presence, felt on the back of the neck in the superstitious hours. The memory of death and life and loss and obligation and the first thing I ever owned that glittered.

Bea, somehow, has made this object different.

A framed photograph of Bea has been edited to include a halo, a motif from religious art used to denote sainthood. This saintly photograph posed with the earring is meant to evoke the small home shrines to Catholic Saints seen during the childhood of the author.

More than the Sum of Its Parts

Fig 5. A Blender model of the earring spot lit against a grey background. This paper seeks to shine a metaphorical spotlight on a single object: an heirloom piece of costume jewelry. The image production in this paper seeks to center this object in its visualizations as a practice of slow archeology [53][77], presenting a single object within many different visual-theoretical frames. In doing so, this paper seeks to present a depth of visual approaches to small object visualization.
This is the story of a material property that isn’t. It is not visible, it is not quantifiable, it isn’t even material. And yet, it is experienced (sometimes quite powerfully), and it has effects (sometimes quite dramatic)1. It is the sense that objects are haunted: somehow changed by the persisting agency of the dead; by an intrusion of those gone onto the living experience of the material world, both literally and figuratively. Yet, however potent the effects may be, experiences of hauntedness are still highly personal, subjective, and individual and thus elude the project of objective realism that underpins grounded archeological study. By its affective nature, hauntedness is a sensory experience that cannot be measured, replicated, or recorded, and this makes its study resistive to traditional methods. Yet archeology is uniquely positioned to engage with these points of overlap between the objective and subjective: straddling the sciences, humanities, and social sciences. So, instead of resisting this intersection of objectivity and subjectivity, this paper seeks to engage with it directly: interweaving narrative, image production, and analysis to explore hauntedness as a property of objects. In doing so, I hope not only to define and validate hauntedness as an important aspect of object materiality, but also to encourage creative approaches to the complex, resistive, often immaterial materiality of objects.

Hauntedness as a Material Property of Objects

Fig 6. In this image, the archeological illustration of the earring is posed with two hands in a posture of recoil. Though this gesture is culturally contingent, so too is the reaction of trepidation, disgust, fear, or surprise that a ‘haunted’ object may evoke. This gesture is consistent with western reactions to hauntedness.
To ask whether hauntedness is real is to ask the wrong question. The afterlife is a topic for philosophers, theologians, neuroscientists, and metaphysicians - and I leave it to them. Instead, this paper approaches hauntedness through the lens of Material Culture Studies, in which material identities are co-constituted in the relationships between people and objects[1][2][3]. Physical attributes and social attributes both converge in the perception of the world and reality is constructed on this intersection [4][5][1][6]. Within this frame, it doesn’t matter if the dead actually linger on the material plane. If reality is constructed around a metaphysics that includes hauntedness as a material property, then individuals will interact with that world in reference to hauntedness[7]. In this framework, hauntedness is real enough: it exists in a reality that is co-constituted by physical senses, social contexts, and mental processes.[8][9] Just as placebos produce real medical outcomes[10], so to can cultural frameworks produce real experiences for those within them.
Fig 7. Here, a photograph of the earring is shown as a node in a tangle of associations between past people, current people, objects, and academic pursuits. The images depict Bea as she lived, a framed photograph of Bea, a photograph of the author now and at around the time of Bea's death, as well as models and illustrations produced over the course of this project.

Hauntedness is therefore a subjective property of object materiality. It is a property in which the dead imbue matter with agency. This agency may be physical[11], magical[7][6][12], and/or emotional[13][14], but it is a power that emerges from biographical associations between people and things[1][15]. It is a persistence of entanglement between the dead, the living, and material objects in a panoply of configurations across time and space[13][3].In this sense, haunted objects are a prime example of mixtures[3] or bundles[16]. They are both subject and object, human and nonhuman, real and unreal, effected by and effecting human consciousness, and full of contradictions and bifurcations[3]. They make the social physical and the physical social[16], entangling, mixing, and distributing human consciousness and object materiality[17]. They compress and distort time and disrupt the neat separation of past, present, and future[13][18].

Fig 8. This image presents a metaphorical visualization of the ways in which objects act as nodes in social relationships, connecting human actors.

It is precisely because haunted objects offer such a rich and complex materiality that they are useful for engaging archaeological theory. They provide an example of object agency derived from human subjects, yet at varying levels of intentionality[16][3]. They are vibrant matter, but it is a vibrancy that springs primarily from supernatural or affective sources as opposed to the materials of the objects themselves[2][6]. They are entangled, not only in “webs of life” [19], but webs beyond life, where the dead remain enmeshed in the living world[20] through their objects. Objects become links in a chain to nothing that nevertheless still hold the shape of that enchainment like a phantom limb [16][5]. Perhaps most fascinatingly, this resistant materiality can have a material expression. Haunted objects may evoke sensory experiences that are both powerfully perceived and culturally constituted [11][21][22][23], existing at the boundaries of the Sensorial Turn; beyond the Aristotelian and objective senses.
Fig 9. The classic 'bedsheet' ghost that originated from the funerary practices of the European Middle Ages [53] is a now ubiquitous cliché of hauntedness. As such, it can act as a visual shorthand for hauntedness, such as the renderings of Egyptian Shaitan added to images of Egyptian archaeology [17]. In this image, however, a ghost is produced in a purposefully cartoonish way, as it is just such a childish, populist representation of haunting [29][37] that archeologists resist in their analysis of objects. It is therefore an image of what archeologists fear: that in exploring immaterial materialities of objects, they depart from a scientific, rational, and grounded study of the past.
Yet for all that these objects can enrich explorations of object materiality, they exist on the fringe of archaeology. They are, after all, superstitious objects, displaying a materiality that exists outside the natural sciences and the objective goals of processual archaeology [24][4]. Haunted objects appear to embody a form of “magical” thinking that is seen as decidedly unmodern, unenlightened, uneducated, and irrational[21][6][7][12]. Hauntedness, along with magic, folklore, and superstition are therefore relegated to the outskirts of the discipline[25][4], or worse still, left to the purview of pseudo-archaeology in its hunt for ghosts, curses, aliens, and monsters[26][27][12]. These explorations of hauntedness might further appear to skirt the symbolic and psychoanalytic approaches of post-processualism, focusing on the meaning of things [19][14]; a particularly fraught project when no resources are available for emic analysis[24].
Fig 10. Digital 3D modelling is often touted for its ability to present object dimensionality more accurately than ever before. Yet it also facilitates creative approaches to visualizing objects, allowing for the modeler to play with lighting, angle, texture, material, etc. As such, it is possible to explore the affective dimensionality [14] of objects, through diverse approaches to staging, mood, evocation, etc.

This paper does not seek to embark on such a project of meaning making (much less a project of ghost hunting). This paper instead seeks to recognize hauntedness as part of the “murk[y] middle ground” in explorations of folk ritual beliefs[24]. It is a sphere of causality that exists in tandem with objective causality[6]. By dismissing it, we may “build false assumptions about what the ‘real world’ is like”[7], secularizing, rationalizing, and suppressing the often powerful effects of heritage[28][6]. As we collect a library of sensory experience through which to examine objects[29][30][31], a focus on the physical senses alone may well be inconsistent with the ontologies that framed (and frame) the experience of the material world[28][7]. In failing to recognize that sensory experiences may be informed by these deep spiritual, cultural frameworks, we are doomed to an idea of sensitivity that is sanitized and one-dimensional.

In failing to recognize these relational frameworks, my own experience of a haunted object simply does not exist.

Fig 11. The use of transparent figures to represent spirits or ghosts emerged in the 18th and 19th century[66], and is deployed here as a visual metaphor for the ways in which objects remain a link between people, even after death.

Humanist Problems Require Creative Solutions

Indeed, attempts to measure and record evidence of ghosts and spirits quickly diverge into the realms of ghost hunting [11], spiritualism[21], and pseudo-archeology[26][27]. Instead, subjective questions require a more subjective toolkit: one that engages this subjectivity, as opposed to resisting or obscuring it[32]. This paper deploys two such tools to explore hauntedness as a material property of objects. The first is auto-ethnographic storytelling [11][13][14], and the second is visual artistic practice[33][13][32]. In doing so, I seek to demonstrate the ways that creative practice can be deployed to enrich more traditional forms of analysis.

Fig 15. Photograph of the process of producing the auto-ethnographic account for this object.

Drawing from anthropology, the use of auto-ethnographic storytelling is quite commonplace in the discipline, and has been very effectively deployed to explore affective aspects of memory [13][34], ruination[35], materials [1][2], etc. This mode of engagement is particularly appropriate in relationship to haunting, as first-hand accounts of haunting experience are a key element of ghost belief [11]. Moreover, ghosts and hauntings frequently appear as a conceptual metaphor in heritage study in reference to things that are abandoned, concealed, or suppressed[21]. In the logocentric context of professional academia[36], auto-ethnographic storytelling is the logical creative extension for archeological analysis, but this reflexivity is hardly the exclusive remit of the written word.
Fig 16. A classic archeological illustration for the Bea’s earring, produced in the diagrammatic style of the discipline.

Image production offers a different form of storytelling, but one in which the discipline is far less comfortable[32]. Though social sciences, and particularly anthropology, have begun experimenting with new visual modes of engagement[37], images are often still treated with suspicion or hostility [38][32]. Though a visually rich discipline [39][32] exposed to an increasingly rich visual media landscape[40], archeology often struggles with visual literacy[27][36][41][42][32]. There are fears that images are overly subjective in production[43], interpretively unstable [36][32][40], and able to achieve a false sense of authority, concealing nefarious theoretical or political intentions behind pleasant aesthetics[27][36][38][44][43]. If the visual is associated with the real and objective[6] and archeological images are expected to present authoritative and accurate depictions of the world [32] any deviance from realism is a necessarily a betrayal of truth.
Fig 17. This image attempts to present the earring in a 'sinister light' Drawing from films, plays, and other visual media, this image uses red light as a visual metaphor for danger.

These fears are not unfounded, but stem from a foundational naiveté around the affordances of images[32]. Images cannot be perfect, objective representations of an object[39]. Images and image-making are culturally, socially, and perceptually relative[43], not to mention dependent on the skill, knowledge, and experience of the artist[39]. Viewers inherently apply their own prejudices as they interpret art[36][32] and these will change and shift over time and context[40]. Images cannot be innocent: they have agendas as part of their raison d’etre[43][39], and to expect otherwise is to fail to engage with the nuance inherent in all forms of knowledge production.
Fig 18. Archeological illustration is presented as part of a logocentric method of classification in archeology [32]. In this image, words are still the primary mode of communication with the illustration taking a secondary role.

Each of these concerns can equally be levied at the written word: written analysis of objects is culturally contingent [1][45], words are frequently misinterpreted by audiences[12], and articles are published with explicit theoretical (and implicit political) agendas. The difference here is simply one of literacy: archeologists are comfortable in textual analysis, but not in visual analysis[27][41]. Furthermore, these concerns over images are not without their paternalistic undertones. Images are widely popular and accessible – often more so than words[27][40]. If even children can see and comprehend an image[37][36], how then can the public be trusted to come to the “correct” conclusions? The dense language of academic prose, however, is guaranteed to admit only those whose intellectual credentials are sufficient to navigate a landscape of archaic latinates, technical jargon, and tangled grammatical structures.
Fig 19. One of the simplest means of incorporating the subjective role of the archeological illustrator in image production is to literally include the illustrator in the image, in this case as a posed hand holding the object. This helps overcome the conceit of scientific illustrations as authorless and objective [41].

Yet, it is because of this very subjectivity that images can be useful to engage with more culturally contingent questions. Images facilitate the “ability to explore subjective, problematic, personal, empathic, emotional and un-quantifiable elements of archeological material that is not available to scientific approaches”[32]. Making images of archeological material facilitates a different type of interaction with artefacts. It encourages a different style of looking and seeing[37], slowing down and focusing engagements with archeological material[38] and structuring interpretations of the archeological record[38][32]. Making images of archeological material allows for an interaction that is distinctly personal, embodied, and intentional[37][38] and therefore one which highlights different visual data than traditional recording tools such as photography or photogrammetry[37].
Fig 20. The resistive agency of objects is not something that can be quantified, but it is nevertheless an element of object materiality that archeology is deeply interested in. Attempting to visualize this aspect of object materiality highlights the curious metaphorical materiality of archeological theory in which words shape the ways that objects are understood.

Image production and storytelling have the capacity to engage with time, both in the temporal experience of making, and the ways in which time can be compressed into a single image[37][13][38]. They allow for a more open-ended exploration of personal involvement, intuition, and affective experience[42], and in doing so, offer a resistive means of knowledge production[42][32]. Yet these new and resistive ways knowledge production should not be seen as a replacements for traditional approaches to archeological material. Objective techniques are powerful and valuable in addressing objective questions. Yet these tools prove insufficient to examine the full spectrum of materiality. Instead, more subjective, creative approaches serve as a supplement to the existing approaches in archeology: offering access to new types of data to enrich the archeological record [46][32].

Case Studies

Background image: A visual outline of the three case studies to come: possession, aura, and memory.

I will highlight 3 types of hauntedness that exist along a spectrum of rationality, intentionality, and materiality: possession, aura, and memory. These three types of hauntedness represent an organizational conceit rather than a categorical, exhaustive, or static scheme. After all, one type of materiality does not preclude others – occulted or otherwise[6]. These three are presented instead to illustrate the diverse ways objects provoke human affectivity and affect human perceptions and actions [5][14].

Hauntedness may therefore be quite literal, where objects are possessed by an affecting agent directly. This is an occulted materiality that is most explicitly supernatural, in which ghosts and spirits of the dead act directly upon the living in material ways[6]. Yet, hauntedness need not be so direct, with objects providing a conduit for aura: a non-living agency that presents as a charismatic or magical potency. Here, the dead themselves do not act upon the living, but imbue objects with a capacity to produce effects. Hauntedness may even be figurative, as an object triggers memory and emotion associated with the dead. This type of hauntedness encompasses the idea of spectrality: the spatio-temporal memory of an object, but this affectivity may not be entirely in the control of those in whom emotion and memory is provoked[13]. Though aspects of hauntedness need not be mutually exclusive, I will examine each separately as a case study in exploring hauntedness using creative approaches.

I. Objects Possessed

The first definition of hauntedness is the most literal: that of possession. Possession here is defined as the belief that an object is inhabited by a non-corporeal agent and imbued with the direct agency of the non-living. Often (though not exclusively) human, these actors are perceived by the senses: sight, smell, sound, touch, or even taste [11][21][22][23][12]. A key affordance of these objects is their ability to house and/or facilitate direct encounters with the supernatural in a way that can be physically experienced – and to believers, photographed and measured [11][21]. These experiences are the acts of specific agents who – within the metaphysics of hauntedness – exist in the perceivable world [11].
Fig 23. Ghost orbs are an element of modern ghost hunting[11], in which orbs caused by photographic backscatter are interpreted as images of the dead. This effect is here reproduced in the image manipulation software GIMP 2.10.22.

Belief in ghosts and spirits is hardly antiquated or remote but remains a persistent part of modern life around the world[28][22][6][12]. In a 2005 Gallup poll, 49% of American adult respondents expressed a belief in ghosts, 39% expressing a belief that places could be haunted, and 22% reporting having lived in a place they believed to be haunted[11]. Even those who don’t believe in ghosts and spirits recognize the effects that these beliefs have on the material world: the sedate context of property law recognizes hauntedness as a factor that can affect the resale value of a houses[47].
Fig 24. A common representation of ghosts and spirits in popular culture and contemporary folklore is as a shadowy figure. Here, a spectral figure is layered into the background of an archeological model in order to convey the sense that the object is a conduit for the agency of the dead.

Hauntedness is, perhaps unsurprisingly, particularly prevalent within cultural heritage contexts. By far, the dominant representation of archaeological objects in modern cinema is in reference to their supernatural aspects[27] and the media surrounding ghosts and hauntings has ballooned in recent years [11]. More recently, the “spinning statuette” at the Manchester Museum was interpreted by the public as a “potential vessel for the spirit of a deceased ancient Egyptian” (among other interpretations). This led to a massive uptick in interest, popularity, speculation, enthusiasm, and museum attendance[12]. The British Museum has also faced difficulty dispelling ideas of a “mummy’s curse” and malevolent spirits that linger around a 21st or 22nd Dynasty mummy in their collection[48].
Fig 25. Glowing red eyes leering out of the darkness is a common trope folklore. Here it is used as a visual metaphor for a sense of fear and foreboding that may surround objects perceived as haunted.

Places, too, often become the residence of ghosts and spirits, such as The Historic Cornwall Jail in Cornwall, Ontario, which advertises visitor experiences with hauntings. Visitors, staff, and paranormal investigators attest to both seeing and hearing paranormal actors [23]. Mariana Lamas and Eduardo Giménez-Cassina outline instances of museum sites and objects that are perceived as haunted or have had paranormal incidents in the past few decades[22]. So popular is this connection between heritage and possession, that a whole industry of dark tourism and ghost tours has sprung up around those seeking encounters with the dead [11][49].
Fig 26. Glowing red eyes leering out of the darkness is a common trope folklore. Here it is used as a visual metaphor for a sense of fear and foreboding that may surround objects perceived as haunted.
Fig 27. Another popular visual trope in horror films is that of engulfing darkness. Here, a rising darkness is shown consuming the object in an attempt to evoke a sense of rising dread that may accompany objects perceived as haunted.

Archaeologists are not immune from experiences with “other-than-human beings”[18] and ghosts[21]. In the most literal sense, heritage professionals are often called upon to engage with public experiences of hauntedness[33][22][12]. Yet, on a more personal level, archeologists have been entangled with experiences of hauntedness. The history of archeology is one that is entwined with the spiritualist movement, with some early investigators deploying psychometry, psychics, biometers, and automated writing as part of archaeological research[21]. Even as these methods fell out of favor in the scientific community and disappeared from publication, many still espoused belief in the occult in their personal life [21].
Fig 28. In this image, the colors of a typical archeological illustration are inverted. Though a very simple intervention on an archeological illustration, it efficiently signals a divergence from the classic approach to object analysis without the loss of any diagrammatic information.

Even now, when the paranormal is publicly denounced as harmful to the discipline[27], there are still occasional allusions to such experiences among heritage professionals [22][23][18]). Sitting around the sherd bucket at the end of the day, I have heard many a tenured professor recount stories of uncanny engagements with historical material: things falling in storerooms, footsteps in empty hallways, and dark shapes disappearing in the night. In these moments of camaraderie, in the hot sun or the cold musty dimness of the storeroom, we tell each-other stories of things we know to be unreal. Stories of an unexplained discomfort and unshakable unease. Stories of an illicit imaginary; dismissed yet persistent. Stories of the past spilling into the present from those charged with drawing firm lines between the two. Stories we keep telling.

Clearly, there is something in the experience of hauntedness that resists and endures.

II. Object Aura

Background image for 'Object Aura' title: The concept of aura emerged from the context of Museum Studies in reference to the charisma of an authentic object [52]. This image seeks to explore the aura-producing effect of museum display, by placing the modelled earring within a simplified sketch of the mount of a famous piece of 'cursed' jewelry, the Hope Diamond on display at the Smithsonian Institution’s National Museum of Natural History in Washington DC.

Background image, this slide: In cultural heritage contexts, labels are a primary medium by which objects are denoted as special. Archeological labels and museum labels each tie an object into an object biographical framework - relating the entanglements that separate an ordinary object from an extraordinary object.

A second definition of hauntedness relates to experiences of object aura[50]. Aura is a slippery term, but is here employed to describe the ways in which objects can provoke a reverential[50], spiritual[51], empathic[50], or even magical[52][12] sense of awe. It is the sense that an object is special, and by its special nature, is able to produce effects. Unlike possession, whereby specific agents work directly though objects, this type of haunting describes the way that an object may act as a conduit for the residual or indirect agency of the non-living. It is an agency that lacks the intentionality of direct human action, but one which nevertheless derives its potency from a human source[53]. It is also an experience of haunting that need not be so explicitly sensory, but may instead present as a highly affective experience[50]: a feeling of entanglement that manifests as a sense of magical agency, charge, or energy[25][22].

This concept of object aura is essentially an emotional manifestation of object biography. In the classical object-biographic approach, objects accumulate meaning through their social interactions, with the biography of the object framed by the ways it intersects with the biographies of human beings[54][15]. Though post-humanist approaches to objects have challenged this anthropocentric focus[55][1], these human entanglements are nevertheless deeply relevant to the auratic potency of objects [56][57]. In fact, it is this history of objects that generate this auratic quality which is then substantiated by its material properties[50]. Objects become powerful in their associations with people, and they retain this power as part of their materiality[56].

In cultural heritage contexts, labels are a primary medium by which objects are denoted as special [63]. Archeological labels and museum labels each tie an object into an object biographical framework - relating the entanglements that separate an ordinary object from an extraordinary object.

The aura evoked through associations between objects and those that have died can manifest in purely empathic ways: a sense of awe[52], empathy, dread[49] closeness to celebrity or charismic authority[56], morbid fascination[49], respect[51], historical authentication[56][58] or nostalgia[59][56]. This is particularly notable in celebrity possessions and memorabilia, from Theresa Tang’s watches[58] to tickets to a David Bowie concert[60], to a Manson family quilt[56]. Objects act as material nodes in the entanglements between people, in which the charisma of the dead lingers through the objects associated with them.
Fig 29. This image draws from the lighting cues of horror films [62] in order to evoke a sense of creepiness in the modeled earring.

Fig 30. Using a visual conceit derived from video games, these models were produced with an 'inner glow' of various colors to mark them out as special.

Fig 31. In this image, illustration, photography, and 3D modelling are deployed to represent 'holiness' through the application of halos drawn from religious art. This motif of halos is meant to convey a sense of sacredness for an object as well as the magical properties that accompany that sacredness.

This aura may also have more practical effects, however, particularly in reference to sacred objects that have been empowered by the influences of important or sacred people [28][22]. These objects may possess an aura that invests them with the power to enact material change such as healing[61][25][62], disaster prevention, luck[25][48], or harm [61][48]. Steph Berns outlines the sacred aura of relics and devotional material that were associated with Catholic saints, describing this aura in terms of a ‘holy radioactivity’ that exists within the relics. It is an aura of sacredness that can pass from the relics or their reliquaries into personal objects that come into contact with them[63]. It is a holiness that stems from the associations with saints and/or saintly remains that make these objects conduits of and surrogates for the presence of the non-living saints[63]. The power of these objects can be potent in the spiritual and emotional planes, but it can also manifest in the material plane as well.
Fig 32. In this image, an English language idiom is translated into a visual image. The auratic experience of objects involves excepting those objects as uniquely important - to ‘put them on a pedestal.’

The idea that objects have an emotional or quasi-magical power derived from their associations with people is a familiar concept in the study of cultural heritage[52][64][65]. Yet this element of object materiality is strikingly subjective, contingent, and affective[52][50]. While the physical properties of an object, such as patina or damage, are relevant to these auratic experiences of awe[52], the foundations of these experiences lie outside the physical properties[50], or even the authenticity[57] of the objects themselves. It is an experience that deviates from an agenda of objectivity, but which is accepted as a property of object materiality that is worthy of study [52][60]. What may set this immaterial materiality apart is the way in which its existence serves to legitimize the project of cultural heritage generally. If certain objects are inherently special, their study is inherently important[52].

III. Objects of Memory

Previous background image: Heirlooms seem to not only retain associations with people, but to provoke remembering. Here, the image of Bea is presented as part of the material of the earring itself

A third distinct definition of hauntedness, is when objects are imbued with memory. In these objects, a key material property is the way in which it can evoke memories of the dead. These objects of memory therefore exhibit a referential agency: they are not conduits for the agency of the dead so much as they are surrogates for them[13]. Within the affective turn, memory is a potent element of object materiality[14] in which past and present interact, overlap, and disrupt one another[13]. The biography of such memory objects constitutes a concretion of events, actions, objects, people, memory, time, and emotion into a physical referent[14][3]. And while these objects may be a “repository of collective memory”[4], they may also be a site of “relentless remembering”[18], that evoke memories involuntarily[13] as associated neural networks activate one another[53]. Memory acts through an object, as the biographical associations materialize as a powerful, personal, and emotional experiences.
Fig 33. Reconstruction of the earring worn by both the author and the original owner, Bea

In one way or another, all objects act as sites of memory[66], but some objects have a particular potency in their associations with the dead. Roberta Gilchrist points to heirlooms, particularly as prompts for autobiographical memory. She links them to Mauss’s concept of inalienable objects that absorb the essence of the giver [4]. In the most literal sense, they reflect the taste of the original owner, extending their material judgements beyond their lifespan[58]. Yet they may also take the place of the dead, becoming the new site of memory and comfort when the human link is severed[66]. Not only do they testify to the past [56], but through this capacity to store and trigger memory[13][66] they allow the past to persist and the dead to remain entangled with the living. Thus, they are sites of haunting: not the literal vessels for spirits or conduits for undead power, but as tools through which the dead can be reanimated through the act of remembering. They are vessels that allow a return to a time before death[13], and so keep the dead alive in affective experiences of the present.
Fig 34. This image reconstructs three hands from the biography of this object. The first is the hand of a North American woman in her early 80s. The second is the hand of a North American child of around 5-years-old. The third is the hand of the author herself, in her late 20s. All hands were reproduced with consent. This image provides a contrast between the hands that interacted with the object in the past, and those interacting with it now.

It is in this way that Bea’s earring is haunted, and why it seems to stand out against the drab backdrop of my jewelry box. It is not the home of some wandering spirit. I do not feel that it brings me any special luck. Yet, when I hold this little thing, it feels heavy in my hand, as if infused with the weight of remembering. Somehow, in owning it, I can erase death and decades and reanimate that love that lingers in the shape of her. I keep this earring because it is a site of memory.
Fig 35. This family photo, from the collection her cousins Bill and Marge Richie, shows Bea within the network of family and friends. These are the people who now remember her through the objects we inherited from her.

Bea is dead, and I know that better than most. From the dispassionate detachment of prolonged excavation experience, I know that she is now a layer of grey ash in the dark, wet soil of a mid-range graveyard. Who knows how many great aunts have come under my trowel; their things bagged up and sent to storeroom basements. I deal in the science of death and loss and things decaying. I know how to measure bones and photograph coffin furniture and draw the little objects left behind. So, I really should know better. Decluttering is the fashion, now, and between moves and cleanouts and therapy sessions centered around my emotional relationship to stuff, I should have disposed of this little piece of kitsch long ago. I should have accepted that death is the end, that “acquits us of all obligations”
Fig 36. This image is meant to evoke the strangeness of clinging to a link that is not there. Objects become a surrogate for the humans that were once connected to them and[30], in keeping them, we keep the shape of an obligation that no longer exists.

But I don’t want to. To throw it away would be “an act of deliberate amnesia”[49], and I am not yet ready to forget. I do not want to exorcise this ghost from my life but instead I want to remember and in remembering, to keep her here. I want to let this little earring stay unmolested in a drawer until my memory fades and it becomes just glass again.

I want to remain haunted.


The dead haunt us all in different ways: figuratively, literally, or somewhere in between. They mediate our relationships with things: their agencies bursting through the material world in unique disruptions of time and space. It is not our job as archaeologists to capture these ghosts, but to leave space for them. When objects resist, we need to engage with that resistance: making art, telling stories, and laying bare our own failings in rationality. In delving, as best we can, into these interstitial and interdisciplinary spaces we can begin to unwind the complex webs of agencies, entanglements, and narratives of which we are a part. After all, archaeology does not put the dead to rest but unsettles them, re-vives them, and weaves them back into life. We are in the business of telling ghost stories, one way or another. And if we are to tell them, we should learn to tell them well.

Background image: Objects cast long shadows, both literally and metephorically. These metephorical shadows may be far larger and more evocative than the objects themselves, and are vital to understanding the effects of materiality on our experiences of the world. To represent objects as purely objective packets of materials is to represent them without dimensionality.


Thank you to Amy, for hunting down family photographs, to Bill and Marge, for their wonderful collection of images, to Shawn, for his unwavering enthusiasm, technical knowledge, and formatting prowess, and to Bea, who inspired it all.


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Image Production Notes

Fig 1. Photo taken on a Nikon D3100 and the image was edited in the image manipulation software GIMP 2.10.22.

Fig 2. Original photograph was digitized from the collection of Bill and Marge Richie using a smartphone camera. The digital photograph was then digitally edited into a frame owned by the author using the image manipulation software GIMP 2.10.22.

Fig 3. Model meshes were sculpted by hand using photographic references. Blender 2.93.5 was chosen after photogrammetric approaches failed due to the transparent, reflective materiality of the glass gems. Images were rendered using Eevee and then posed together using the image manipulation software GIMP 2.10.22.

Fig 4. Screenshot of Blender 2.93.5 workspace during the process of editing the earring model mesh.

Fig 5. Digital 3D model of a clip-on earring, produced in Blender 2.93.5. This image was produced using a spotlight and a plane in addition to the earring mesh and was rendered using Eevee.

Fig 6. The earring illustration was produced in the image manipulation software GIMP 2.10.22, using both a manually produced illustration and a photograph as references. Hands were then traced by the author in GIMP.

Fig 7. Images were taken from the personal collections of the author as well as the photographic collections of Bea's relatives, Bill and Marge Richie and Amy Hanson. They were then compiled in the image manipulation software GIMP 2.10.22.

Fig 8. Image was produced in the image manipulation software GIMP 2.10.22.

Fig 9. This image was produced using the image manipulation software GIMP 2.10.22.

Fig 10. This image was produced in Blender 2.93.5 using a spotlight and a plane in addition to the earring mesh and was rendered using Eevee.

Fig 11. This image was produced using the image manipulation software GIMP 2.10.22.

Fig 12. Photogrammetric data was compiled into a mesh in MeshLab and then exported to Blender. However, this resulted in a distorted mesh.

Fig 13. This photogrammetric data was produced from images taken on a Nikon D3100 Camera, compiled in Cloud Compare and exported to MeshLab.

Fig 14. Photogrammetric data was compiled into a mesh in MeshLab and then exported to Blender. However, this resulted in a distorted mesh.

Fig 15. Photograph taken with the camera from a Motorolla G8 Power smartphone.

Fig 16. Digital archeological illustration was produced in the image manipulation software GIMP 2.10.22 from a digitized manual illustration and photographs of the artefact.

Fig 17. This image was produced using the 3D digital modelling software Blender 2.93.5. It was produced using a red-tinted spotlight and a plane in addition to the earring mesh and was rendered using Eevee.

Fig 18. This image was produced using the image manipulation software GIMP 2.10.22. The illustration was produced from manual illustrations and photographs.

Fig 19. This image was produced using the image manipulation software GIMP 2.10.22 from photographs of both the earring and the author’s hand.

Fig 20. The earring mesh was produced using the digital 3D modelling software Blender 2.93.5 and then rendered in Eevee. The image was then imported into the image manipulation software GIMP 2.10.22 and the halo was added.

Fig 21. The photograph of Bea was taken from the collection of Bill and Marge Richie, and then layered over a Blender 2.93.5 model of the earring in the image manipulation software GIMP 2.10.22.

Fig 22. The photograph of Bea was taken from the collection of Bill and Marge Richie, and then layered over a Blender 2.93.5 model of the earring in the image manipulation software GIMP 2.10.22.

Fig 23. The image was taken with the smartphone camera of a Motorolla G8 Power, and then edited with the image manipulation software GIMP 2.10.22.

Fig 24. The modelled earring was produced in the digital 3D modelling software Blender 2.93.5, rendered with Eevee, and then layered over a background produced in the image manipulation software GIMP 2.10.22.

Fig 25. The modelled earring was produced in the digital 3D modelling software Blender 2.93.5, rendered with Eevee, and then layered over a background produced in the image manipulation software GIMP 2.10.22.

Fig 26. The modelled earring was produced in the digital 3D modelling software Blender 2.93.5, rendered with Eevee, and then layered over a background produced in the image manipulation software GIMP 2.10.22.

Fig 27. The modelled earring was produced in the digital 3D modelling software Blender 2.93.5, rendered with Eevee, then layered between backgrounds produced in the image manipulation software GIMP 2.10.22.

Fig 28. This illustration was produced in the image manipulation software GIMP 2.10.22.

Fig 29. The models were created and lit in the digital 3D modelling software Blender 2.93.5 and rendered with Eevee. They were then arranged against a black background in the image manipulation software GIMP 2.10.22.

Fig 30. The models were produced in the digital 3D modelling software Blender 2.93.5 and rendered in Eevee. Both inner glow and arrangement were them produced in the image manipulation software GIMP 2.10.22.

Fig 31. The modelled earrings in this image were produced and lit in the modelling software Blender 2.93.5 and rendered in Eevee. The photograph was taken with a Nikon D3100 Camera. Halos were produced variously in Blender and the image manipulation software GIMP 2.10.22. GIMP was also used to create the artefact illustration and background of the image.

Fig 32. The photograph of the earring was taken on a Nikon D3100 Camera, and then edited into a sketch of both earring and pedestal produced in the image manipulation software GIMP 2.10.22.

Fig 33. This illustration was produced in the image manipulation software GIMP 2.10.22 from photographs of both Bea and the author.

Fig 34. This illustration was produced in the image manipulation software GIMP 2.10.22 from hand photographs.

Fig 35. Family photo from the collection of Bill and Marge Richie. Photo was digitized from the original using a smartphone camera.

Fig 36. This image was produced with the photo manipulation software GIMP 2.10.22.

Background Image - photograph with halo - Original photograph was digitized from the collection of Bill and Marge Richie using a smartphone camera. The image file was then digitally edited in the image manipulation software GIMP 2.10.22 along with images of the frame and earring taken using a smartphone camera from a Motorolla G8 Power.

Background Image - visual outline - This image was produced using the image manipulation software GIMP 2.10.22.

Background Image - museum case - The modelled earring was produced in the digital 3D modelling software Blender 2.93.5, rendered with Eevee, and then layered over a background produced in the image manipulation software GIMP 2.10.22.

Background Image - tagged object - This image was produced using the image manipulation software GIMP 2.10.22.

Background Image - Bea as part of the materiality of the earring - This image was produced from a 3D model produced in the digital 3D modelling software Blender 2.93.5 and rendered in Eevee. The model was then imported into the image manipulation software GIMP 2.10.22 where it was layered with a photograph of Bea from the collection of Bill and Marge Richie.

Background Image - object casting shadow - This image was produced and lit in the digital 3D modelling software Blender 2.93.5 and rendered in Eevee.

Made with Mural