Capturing the Un-Representable: Artifacts and Landscapes between Mental and Material Worlds

Capturing the Un-Representable: Artifacts and Landscapes between Mental and Material Worlds, Center for Ancient Studies Annual Graduate Student Conference, University of Pennsylvania, December 5–7, 2014

Humanistic disciplines typically focus their investigations on tangible, material remains, such as texts, artifacts, architecture, and landscapes, analyzing them as autonomous objects. However, material remains can also be understood as traces – evidence of greater images, landscapes, and spaces that existed in the minds of their creators and users. What anthropologists call the “life world” is processed in the mind and thus becomes a cultural construct, subsequently made manifest through design as objects, landscapes, and architectures.  In turn, these physical manifestations may be used to access the imaginaire of the culture that constructed them. Our conference aims to examine what such material remains evince about the thoughts, imaginations, and mental motivations of ancient and medieval cultures (Old and New World) – that is, how do material remains mediate between mental and material worlds?

The annual graduate student conference, sponsored by the Center for Ancient Studies at the University of Pennsylvania, aims to present a diverse set of methodological interventions that link material culture to historical imagination.  Our goal is productive dialogue about the utility of methods employed in different geographic regions, time periods, and disciplines on the topic at hand (see below).  We hope to accomplish our task by mixing graduate students with scholars at various stages of their careers and by means of a culminating methods workshop.

Our conference asks the following questions: How can we recover the afterlife of artifacts and landscapes in human imagination?  And how do imagined artifacts and landscapes have bearing on actual ones?  What can the agency of an object tell us about the ‘intentions’ of its creators and users?  Creator intention is arguably embedded both in the object’s reason for being as well as in the material form it takes.  How do archaeological objects reflect mental conceptions about whatever the object was ‘designed’ to be?  Does our inability to explain ‘intention’ reflect our own loss of codes to understanding that ‘original’ meaning?  Does considering the agency of the artifact help us to better understand (and decode) the mental world behind its production and use?

The conference will consist of a Friday evening reception and keynote address, with the main conference panels on Saturday and a methods workshop on Sunday morning. Each of the conference panels will be moderated by invited established scholars. After the conference sessions, a short workshop will give the speakers the opportunity to receive feedback and discuss their papers in more detail.

We invite submissions from graduate students and recent PhDs in any field studying ancient and medieval cultures (both Old and New World), such as religious studies, art history, anthropology and textual/literary studies. Cross-disciplinary approaches are especially welcomed.

Potential paper topics could include:

  • Artifacts that indicate planned or imagined but perhaps unrealized architecture and landscapes.
  • Artifacts composed of words suggestive of greater mental images; words as representations and traces.
  • The relationship of textual and visual/material representations; ekphrasis.
  • Contradiction and multiplicity in representations; aesthetics and modes of viewing or reading.
  • The role of the tangible artifact in the creation (and destruction) of mental images.
  • Imagined landscapes and real terrain.
  • Mental mapping; experience of place; coding and decoding; re-connecting representations to real terrain.
  • New methodologies for accessing and studying mental imagery or conceptions that have not been preserved (or may never have been constructed) as representations in material culture.

Posted on Jul 24, 2014 in Calls for Papers



for Byzantine Arts and Culture

Founded in 2010 through a generous gift from the Jaharis Family Foundation, the Mary Jaharis Center for Byzantine Art and Culture is dedicated to the promotion and advancement of knowledge about the rich heritage of Byzantine art and culture.

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