The ancient (and modern) practice of sharing yourself through craft

Anthropologists and archaeologists are often interested in how research from a related field can bring new insight, especially on the level of theory.  And this has come home to me in the past few weeks while I’ve been attending a series of lectures about the art and literature of the English Renaissance.

The reason I’m spending so much time at lectures is that for the year that I’m here in Cambridge I am employed through the Disability Resources Centre as a note taker, working with some amazing students at the university who need additional support.  As a bonus, I am learning more about English literature than I ever expected to!

The idea which has crossed over from anthropology to archaeology – and to English literature – is referred to as ‘distributed personhood’, a term popularized by Alfred Gell in 1998.  He was writing about art and anthropology, and proposed the striking idea that after objects are made, they act on the world as an extension of the maker.  Other writers and researchers have applied this view to their own fields, with an emerging sense that it can relate not only to a work of art, a tool or a weapon, but also to a piece of music, a dance, a story …  We distribute ourselves whenever we make an impact on our world.

Jason Scott-Warren (whose lectures I have been enjoying this term) talks about the derivation of the word ‘technology’ as coming from the Greek tekhne, which means both ‘art’ and ‘craft’.  As he points out, the two words have very different connotations to us now, with art representing a high level of aesthetic achievement, and craft suggesting the simpler production of useful things.  But as late as the Medieval period, “art was a craft –  a technical proficiency that transformed the natural into the human and artificial” (p 17).

The word ‘art’ simply meant skill, and an ‘artful weaver’ was one who showed expertise, and subtle technique.   So it follows that craftwork, like artwork, distributes the presence of the crafter, fanning outwards to all who will ever see or use the objects they have made.

Arjun Appadurai, in his Social Life of Things talks about all the identities that an object can assume in its ‘lifetime’ as it is passed from hand to hand, generation to generation.  It might at different times be a commodity, a gift, an heirloom, a memento or a ritual object.   But Gell goes farther, and suggests that objects are not just passively handed along, they have agency, extending the artist’s (or artisan’s) reach across distance and time.  People take action through the things they create, this way distributing their personhood.


Photo credit: NHMV

Textiles in the Hallstatt Salt Mines

This makes me think about the amazing collection of textile fragments found in the salt mines near Hallstatt in Austria, and dating to the early Iron Age, around 1500 to 1400 BC.  When this large site was excavated, archaeologists found over 700 textile fragments at the bottom of the shaft and in the underground caverns.  They believe that since there were no entire garments, and some pieces appeared to be torn into strips, these were already recycled scraps of cloth when they were taken into in the mine, most likely used as rags for cleaning or slings for carrying tools.  When the mine was abandoned, all sorts of garbage and debris was dumped into the shafts.  And with the salt and airless environment, it was preserved for over 3,000 years before being uncovered by archaeologists in the 19th century.  Today hundreds of these fragments of cloth have been painstakingly cleaned and preserved – and are now in the Natural History Museum of Vienna, prized examples of some of the oldest textiles found in Europe.

I expect the weavers would be astonished at the long lifetime of those scraps of cloth: once clothing perhaps, then rags, disposed of in a disused mine, then excavated in the 19th century.  And in the 21st century they are displayed with care, and admired by crowds of visitors.  Such a reach of presence – of their ‘distributed personhood’ – could hardly have been imagined!

Does it make you wonder about the items that you have woven?   Maybe the scarf that you gave as a gift to your sister or daughter will many years later be passed on to their own son or daughter.  And 50 years after that it might be given to a thrift store, to be passed along to warm someone you will never know …   In 3000 years maybe it will be in a museum as an example of 21st century craftwork!



Appadurai, A.  The Social Life of Things, 1986, Cambridge University Press: Cambridge, UK.

Chua, L. and Elliot, M. (ed’s.)  Distributed Objects: Meaning and Mattering after Alfred Gell, 2013, Berghahn Books: New York.

Gell, A.  Art and Agency, 1998, Oxford University Press: Oxford, UK.

Harris, S. et. al.  Cloth cultures in prehistoric Europe, Archaeology International, issue 12, 2009.

Naturhistorisches Museum Wien.

Scott-Warren, J.  Early Modern English Literature, 2005, Polity Press, Cambridge: UK.


One thought on “The ancient (and modern) practice of sharing yourself through craft

  1. I do occasionally wonder what kind of man or woman the babies who I gifted with handmade quilts may have grown up to become. I never thought about how I may have shared a tiny bit of myself in the way you described here. What an eye-opener. I do wonder about the craftsmen and women who, for instance, made and repaired sakiori coats until they could not longer hold together. We can only imaging these lives, but what a wonderful and educational diversion it is.


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