Crystal B. Lake, Artifacts: How We Think and Write About Objects, Johns Hopkins University Press, 2020, 272 pp., 4 bw illus. ISBN: 9781421436500
Madeleine Pelling, York
Fig. 1 Fragments of medieval, early modern and modern ceramics alongside an iron horseshoe. Photograph by author.
Like most living through the global pandemic, I have spent much of the last few months walking the same familiar routes near my house. Setting off from my front door each day with my dogs, I traverse first the streets and then the fields and woods surrounding the rural North Yorkshire town in which I currently live. Having moved here just after the first UK-wide lockdown, I knew little of this place, its people or its history but, in the weeks and months that followed, I soon came to know every cobbled snickelway (a Yorkshire word for alley or passageway) and winding footpath within several miles’ radius.
An integral, though unplanned, part of this daily rhythm has since emerged. Early on, an evening walk led me through a nearby farmstead and across one of its fields, filled with the undulating remnants of a medieval complex hidden just beneath the turf. Picking my way around the muddy path through its centre, churned up by livestock and setting in the sun in malleable waves, I looked down to see a shard of pottery emerging from the earth. Closer inspection revealed a thick, rough red piece, broken in long, uneven fractures down either side and cut through with a black streak; possibly the surviving fragment of an early modern roof tile belonging to an earlier iteration of the farm through which I had passed and now lost to the soil. Pocketing this broken and otherwise worthless object, I continued on my way. On the walks that have filled the subsequent days since then, I have made similar discoveries; small, broken, sometimes near-indistinguishable slivers of ceramic and glass variously buried under the feet of fellow walkers, turned up by a plough, or washed to the edge of the local river and stranded amidst the shale. A splinter of brown medieval pot, the faded elegance of a blue and white eighteenth-century plate, the bold stripes of a 1930s teacup. Each time I see one of these seemingly insignificant things, I carry it home, clean it up, and place it in a box on my desk to be contemplated later or collaged into a future mosaic.
In a moment in which our worlds have shrunk to the size of small households, well-worn but solitary pathways and, increasingly, digital spaces, these real, material objects have provided the means to construct a narrative of the place in which I live. In passing shuttered shops, the empty cinema, and desolate cafes, I have instead looked to these small, accidentally uncovered treasures to feel out and gather together evidence of the history and character of the town, imagining them as tangible links to those who have come before and, perhaps, substitutes for the tactile encounters we are all missing.
But the distance between the past and present, and how we fill that gap with theorizations of the material culture that – often through pure happenstance – has survived decay, is complex. How we think and write about these objects is the subject of Crystal Lake’s Artifacts. Published in 2020, this book has, like the fragments gathered on my walks, sat on my desk for several months. In this time, it has become integral to my thinking, informing various projects, and providing a new vocabulary:
Artifacts are sufficiently distanced from their users both in time and space as the things buried in and by the past; they enter into the present pocked with signs of this distance. Their survival is an accident of time, their discovery often equally accidental. They do not have obvious use functions in the present. You are unlikely to try to buy milk with an ancient coin, use a medieval manuscript for completing your math homework, bring a rusty sword to a gunfight, or repurpose anything you find in a king’s grave. (p. 196)
Lake’s definition of ‘artifacts’ is a major intervention. Her definition of the term builds on Bruno Latour’s proposal that nonhuman objects have agency to explore how close study of the broken and fragmented stuff of the past might engender a range of narratives and expose the complex intersections between ‘objects, events, systems, and ideas.’ Setting her study in the eighteenth century, a moment in which historiographical and literary formulation took a particularly material turn, Lake complicates the notion that objects held within them otherwise unknown and unknowable information. Instead, she reveals how ‘rarely did they do what they were supposed to do: act as the agents of facts.’ Artifacts, she insists, were ‘vibrant’ (a term borrowed from Jane Bennett) and the study of them, rather than produce definitive truth, occasioned ‘ongoing disputes over how to interpret what it was, exactly, that they revealed about the past and the nature of government.’
The book proposes that ‘throughout the long eighteenth century artifacts preserved old conflicts over England’s political history.’ They were ‘taken up repeatedly by fictions as well as histories’ and perceived as ‘invitations to indulge in thought experiments about the past.’ But how such experiments were formulated depended on how antiquaries and writers went about reading – or listening to – old and fragmented stuff. In the late seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, Lake suggests, artifacts’ ‘vexed materiality, their fragmented qualities’ rendered them supposedly unreliable, not easily categorised and, as a result, eventually erased from the (art) historical record. But, crucially, the difficulties in pinning down just what artifacts were saying proved them ‘adept as mediators of form and stylistic techniques in the period’s texts’ and indeed, the book’s focus on the close relationship between material culture and literary production is especially fruitful.
In her opening chapter, Lake positions the antiquary of the late seventeenth and eighteenth centuries as a central figure in the mediation and interpretation of artifacts. She reveals how historical objects were ‘at the nexus of […] competing scientific, philosophical, and political ideas’ and the study of them therefore necessarily polemical. The practitioners of this tradition were routinely targets of satire as well as serious criticism; Horace Walpole described the Society of Antiquaries as a bunch of ‘boobies’ and ‘midwives of superannuated miscarriages’ while the actor and playwright Samuel Foote lampooned them in Taste (1752). But, Lake proposes, while antiquaries were laughed at for their relishing of dusty and broken fragments, moth-eaten manuscripts, and the mouldering remains of long-dead kings, their industrious endeavours in seeking out, recording, and disseminating the remnants of England’s treasures would have longer and more powerful theoretical implications.
The first case study in Artifacts turns to the broad assemblage of ten thousand items gathered by James Salter, servant to Sir Hans Sloane, and afterwards displayed at his famous coffeehouse, Don Saltero’s. The collection contained within it many of the kinds of objects (coins, manuscripts, weapons and grave goods) that Lake scrutinises in the following chapters. Unlike the British Museum, first established in 1753 with the bequeathed collections of Sloane himself and which, by the mid-late eighteenth century, discouraged visitors from close inspection of objects, Don Saltero’s offered a markedly more tactile encounter with the past. In such space, and accompanied by a printed catalogue, ‘artifacts on display reminded the coffeehouse’s customers of relics – and of the sovereigns who exploited them in order to assert their own claims to divine right.’ Looking to contemporary visitor accounts, Lake reveals how objects were seen to carry with them the traumatic histories of previous centuries:
Descriptions of Saltero’s […] offer a representative example that complicates the characterization of the Enlightenment that prevails in the new materialisms; the artifacts […] were not readily purified in part because they preserved the vestiges of pre-Enlightenment materialisms.
Questions of artifacts’ politics and their increasingly sophisticated relationship to texts looking to understand and explain them continue into the second half of the book to follow four major studies, all revolving around a type of object. Each new chapter is introduced with a single image (the book is otherwise, and perhaps surprisingly, unillustrated), taken from the Society of Antiquaries’ landmark Vetusta Monumenta, a text currently being digitised with additional scholarly commentary in a project headed, in part, by Lake. Although not fully representative of the impressive scope of the book, Lakes’ focus on the Society provides a thread throughout and underscores her interest in uncovering the eighteenth-century networks that sought to scrutinise historical objects and which put into action formal tools and institutional mechanisms for documenting, thinking and writing about them.
Chapters three and four turn to coins and manuscripts respectively and examine the perceived opportunities and limitations in engaging such objects. Perhaps most pressingly in a period in which they were widely circulated (and falsified) as currency as well as collected as historical items, coins represented slippery and uneasy histories. As tokens of the ‘royal touch’ they ‘served as evidence of the king’s divinely ordained ability to cure diseases and, by extension, a king’s inherently benevolent relationship to his subjects.’ But, they could also reveal themselves as ‘counterfeit propaganda [or] exemplify the perils of idolatry and the vanity of tyrannical despots.’ Manuscripts were similarly unreliable, though far less sturdy in their material qualities and, Lake shows us, intriguingly compared to ‘butterflies’ and even ‘irradiated armadillos’ in a period characterised as much by the development of natural history as antiquarian study. Manuscripts were volatile, vulnerable to forgery and destruction by fire or simple old age. They were also tools for self-fashioning, gathered together in large archives and libraries by eminent men and, Lake demonstrates, growing quieter and quieter in terms of what it was they actually said, or didn’t say, about the past.
Chapter five opens with a familiar tableau from Horace Walpole’s The Castle of Otranto, in which a giant helmet falls from the sky, before turning to the extant historical weaponry circulated in eighteenth century London. Weapons, Lake posits, ‘littered England’s cultural landscape’ and ‘could appear to be vital or mechanical pieces of matter [but] also supply historical matters of fact for a range of ideological claims.’ In particular, propagandistic displays of swords, pikes, helmets, and armour at the Tower of London, installed in previous centuries, came under new scrutiny in the eighteenth century by antiquaries and writers alike. Such items could be studied in broader contexts to draw out comparative art and design histories. They also gave themselves over to myriad forms of textual translation, from tourist guidebooks to Jonathan Swift’s Tale of a Tub and Tobias Smollett’s Sir Launcelot Greaves. Both Swift and Smollett, for example, ‘depicted weapons as a means of critiquing the ways in which violence had begot violence while both also imagined how their own texts might function as weapons.’
Artifacts’ final case study looks to grave goods buried with the kings of England and later excavated in the eighteenth century; among them Edward I, exhumed in 1774, Edward IV in 1789, King John in 1797, and Charles I in 1813. Setting these discoveries against a backdrop of revolution, in which ‘vitalist ideas once again promised to disseminate power more equally among a state’s citizens by investing all matter with agency,’ Lake reveals growing anxiety that the ‘liveliness of matter that lurked in the graves of England’s sovereigns’ might bring reincarnation and, with that, a resurfacing of old struggles. And indeed, while scientific experiments on the corporeal remains set out to prove this matter was, in fact, definitively dead, the physical bringing up of royal bodies gave rise to a number of cultural and literary afterlives; from the involvement of the Prince Regent and Sir Henry Halford, doctor to George III, in the exhumation of Charles I to antiquarian clashes in John Wolcot’s A Rowland for an Oliver (1790) and vampiric satire in Byron’s Windsor Poetics.
The political stakes of what artifacts said, then, ‘were almost unimaginably high’ and ‘had the power to make the case for or against regicide and revolution, for or against what constituted treason or democracy.’ But, Lake insists, if asked whether artifacts have politics, eighteenth-century antiquaries would emphatically answer ‘no.’ The problem of artifacts in this period, as the book has it, was that ‘although [they] had the power to act as political agents, they enjoyed such power precisely because they were not thought to be inventive or invested in the matters of fact they revealed.’ Instead, they were open to different, often conflicting interpretations and, as a result, were eventually discarded and dismissed as the scrappy, incomplete detritus of history. In considering this, Lake proposes that while history ‘does establish artifacts as objects that have the ability to act,’ they also ‘lead us to look to the texts that they afford in order to assess their influence.’ In these productions, objects’ incompleteness could combine with ‘imaginative guesswork’ in the gaps between material fact and fiction. Compellingly, the book concludes that ‘artifacts taught us how to dig for more – how to read with suspicion by keeping an eye out for a text’s origins or real-life referents as well as for its ideological investments[.]’
Artifacts is a theoretically rich text and essential reading for anyone working on material and literary cultures, both within and beyond eighteenth-century studies. Furthermore, Lake’s work opens up new space for future scholars to think beyond the relationship between object and text to consider more deeply antiquarianism’s visual languages and the translation of objects into historically and politically encoded images.
 Crystal B. Lake, Artifacts: How We Think and Write About Objects (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2020).
 Lake, Artifacts, p. 11; Bruno Latour, Reassembling the Social: An Introduction to Actor-Network-Theory (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2005).
 Jane Bennett, Vibrant Matter: A Political Ecology of Things (Durham: Duke University Press, 2010).
 Lake, Artifacts, p. 13.
 Ibid, p.165.
 Ibid, p. 196.
 Ibid, p. 165.
 Ibid, p. 22-4.
 Ibid, p. 25.
 Ibid, p. 48.
 Ibid, p. 32.
 Ibid, pp. 137, 162.
 Ibid, p. 138.
 Ibid, p. 166.
 Ibid, p. 198.
 Ibid, p. 199.
 Ibid, p. 206.
Dr Madeleine Pelling is an art historian specialising in eighteenth-century visual and material cultures. She is currently preparing her monograph, The Duchess’ Museum: Collecting, Craft and Conversation, 1730-1786, for publication and is co-editor of A Cultural History of Historiography: The Age of Enlightenment and Revolutions (under contract with Bloomsbury).
Original Words and Image: © Madeleine Pelling, 2021.