Routing-out Portable Antiquities: a biographical study of the contemporary lives of Tamil antiquities
Lowson, Alice Adelaide Booker
Thesis or dissertation
University of Exeter
Developing the idea of an ‘object biography’, as defined by Kopytoff (1986), this thesis challenges a fixed, static concept of antiquities and their present meanings by focusing on the routes they travel through space and time as they circulate through the hands of unauthorised finders, dealers and collectors. The research has been carried out in India, focusing on the South Indian state of Tamil Nadu. As a non-Western country with a period of colonial history, India is an ideal location to explore not just the diversity and mutability of these meanings but also the tensions between authorized and divergent viewpoints regarding the value and management of the past. My methodology has drawn on theoretical models from the social sciences that approach the production of meaning in and through material culture as an organic and on-going process of human-object relations. Through a process of qualitative surveying using purposive sampling and semi-structured interviews, two distinct object case studies have been devised and investigated: the circulation of structural and household antiques from the 19th and 20th century houses of the Nagarathar Chettiars, and the excavation of coins, beads, jewellery and figurines in the riverbeds of Tamil Nadu and their subsequent sale, collection and circulation. In the course of fieldwork I have recorded over 55 hours of interactions with 107 respondents in locations across Tamil Nadu, as well as Bangalore, Mumbai, Jodhpur and London. I have supported this data with photographs, fieldnotes, and internet sources. In my analysis of this data I have argued that many people in Tamil Nadu and South India feel a sense of distance and alienation from the world of ‘heritage’ as defined and managed by the government, while at the same time people are engaged in their own processes of meaning-making through the old objects they engage with and circulate on a daily basis. The objects studied in this thesis are not seen as pertaining to the ‘sleeping’ realm of antiquities and authorized heritage, but to the ‘waking’ realm of active circulation, use and transformation. Furthermore, in the variety of ways that people engage with and transform these objects we can see the negotiation of relationships with the past and identities in the present at a time of rapid social and economic change in India.
PhD in Archaeology