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Artifacts – Q&A with author Crystal Lake

Why did you decide to write Artifacts: How We Think and Write about Found Objects?

Until I went to college in 1997, I lived in a log cabin that my parents had built on a spot of land owned by my great grandparents, tucked by the side of a desolate dirt road in southern West Virginia. Family hand-me-downs along with the detritus of a dwindling rural community seemed to accumulate in our cabin; my dad, especially, liked to keep and collect old things. Sometimes, I’ve felt like I grew up in some version of the 1700s, and no doubt my own past helped endear me to the study of history and the stories that its objects might tell.

In 2011, I visited the library at the Society of Antiquaries in London and got a chance also to poke around in their museum. On the top floor of Burlington House, behind a plain door with a modest plaque that read simply “MUSEUM,” there was a small room where a dusty glass cabinet ran alongside one wall and floor-to-ceiling shelves teetered on the other side stuffed full of thousands of items that had been donated to the Society over the years, and I felt a curious kind of kinship with those old bits and bobs. It was then that I realized that I really wanted to write about those kinds of things: the old, small objects that hadn’t been cherished as mementos, or deemed important enough to be set up for public display, or sold to the highest bidder at auction. I couldn’t stop wondering about the stories that those old objects might be able to tell.

What were some of the most surprising things you learned while writing and researching the book?

I was surprised to discover how much ink was spilled in the 1700s debating what something like a rusty coin, a scrap of paper, an old sword, or a piece of crumbling bone really was and what it really meant. Although the artifacts I follow in my book inspired heated debates throughout the eighteenth century, we seem to have forgotten about most of them. A lot of great scholarship has been written about objects that are one-of-a-kind, the first-of-their-kind, or the best-of-their-kind—as well as about the objects that memorialize our deepest loves and losses. So I was surprised to find that these old, dusty, moldy, broken things had a history of provoking fierce philosophical and political controversies.

What do you hope people will take away from reading your book?

We use the word artifact all the time to designate a wide range of found or human-made objects. In the book, however, I redefine the artifact as a uniquely fragmented thing: enough of the object remains for us to believe that we can reliably interpret it, but the parts that are still missing mean that our interpretations will always be inconclusive. The history of artifacts that I trace suggests that these qualities of fragmentation make artifacts especially adept at goading people into writing about them. Artifacts, therefore, seem to me to be especially literary objects. This way of defining artifacts will, I hope, inspire new research and thinking about a lot of old stuff.

What is new about Artifacts that sets it apart from other books in the field?

Although Artifacts is a scholarly monograph, it’s also chocked full of quirky histories. I loved writing about Don Saltero’s coffeehouse, for example, where you could order your drink, get your hair cut, gawk at literary celebrities, and take a gander at the “ten thousand” artifacts that were purportedly on display there, including my favorite so-called “antiquity”: “Pontius Pilot’s sister’s chambermaid’s straw hat.” Artifacts also takes readers on a historical tour of the armories in the Tower of London where obsolete weapons have been arranged into stunning sculptural installations since the 1600s. A life-sized whale skeleton made out of old carbines was once on display alongside pipe organs and pyramids and the head of Medusa, all made out of obsolete weapons. Some visitors to the Tower were delighted by the spectacles they could see there, but many were deeply discomfited by them, and I was touched by their descriptions of feeling afraid and confused. Then there are the exhumations of royal bodies that my book documents. At one of these exhumations, an antiquary reportedly stole one of the king’s fingers; at another, a surgeon tasted the liquid that had pooled at the bottom of the king’s coffin; and at the exhumation of Charles I in 1813, someone removed the very piece of his neckbone that had been chipped by the executioner’s ax.

In short, I tried to write a book that would not only be useful for academics working in a range of specialized fields but also interesting for those readers who enjoy poking around in history’s junk drawers.

How do you envision the lasting impact of your book?

My research on artifacts helped me to realize that one way to have an impact is to provoke debate. I am as excited by the possibility that the readers of Artifacts will find opportunities to apply my findings to their own research as I am by the possibility that they might identify texts or objects that complicate my claims. I’m especially keen for my definition of the artifact to be developed further and for my characterization of the “artifactual form” in literary history to be refined. I like best those books that raise at least many questions as they answer, and I hope Artifacts will turn out to be that kind of book.

Order Artifacts: How We Think and Write about Found Objects -- published on February 11, 2020 -- at the following link: https://jhupbooks.press.jhu.edu/title/artifacts

Crystal B. Lake is a professor of English language and literatures at Wright State University. She is the cofounder and coeditor of The Rambling, and the author of Artifacts: How We Think and Write about Found Objects.