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Junk to you, cool artifact to me

I was teaching a course on writing systems in Chicago, and funding from a small grant allowed me to limit the class size. So we loaded into a van and visited museums in the area that house unique script artifacts. I also arranged for guest scholars and curators to talk to us about specific writing systems. One place on our itinerary was a museum at the University of Chicago, were we admired some rare Chinese “oracle bones.” These are bovine scapulae and tortoise plastrons carved with the earliest forms of Chinese writing.

Fake oracle bone, made around 1910

The graduate student curator assigned to talk to us about the oracle bones was smart and conscientious. When asked “Doesn’t the Field Museum have any of these?” he sneered, “Oh no, those are ridiculous fakes,” which for me was the most interesting thing he said. What he didn’t know about is my quest to find appropriated and pseudo writing. The counterfeit oracle bones I eventually photographed at the Field Museum of Natural History are now among my prized items. My students have also contributed great finds to my growing collection: a pair of Wisconsin socks woven with fabricated Egyptian hieroglyphics (lots of birds!), a coin purse with gibberish Chinese characters embroidered on it, and a gorgeous azure silk-screened T-Shirt with an upside down Japanese poem.

My project on nonlinguistic uses of borrowed script and pseudo script has been interesting because it complicates any simple notions about appropriation. I’m finding that scripts from other languages are borrowed or approximated not only to defraud, as in the fake oracle bones case, but also for symbolic, aesthetic, indexical, decorative, iconographic and satirical purposes. Many writers have already ranted about the popularity of Chinese character tattoos, and how often these have been botched in their application. [Character goofs here.] I asked some of my students who had ill-considered tattoos if they cared that the writing was, well, mangled? Nope, most didn’t think it mattered since they can’t read it in any case, it just “looks cool.” This cool factor (or Orientalist exoticization) is condemned when young people do it, but for some reason the running, meaningless Japanese katakana syllabary, presented in columns of reverse mirror-image flowing green lines in The Matrix films, was not similarly subjected to negative censure.

Pseudo Mayan glyphs with number 13, Acapulco Princess Hotel

It is easy for us to snicker at occasions when we see people playing with writing they can’t read, but Chinese artists themselves do it when they create nonexistent graphs for aesthetic and intellectual reasons. The artist Xu Bing, for example, made up thousands of  unreadable characters and printed them in ersatz books and on yards of white cloth draped from the ceiling, confounding and greatly irritating his audiences. There are also, of course, numerous examples of  script used in religious or cultural settings in which people are unable to read or pronounce it, but nevertheless, such writing has great symbolic value. Siddham script can’t be read by most Japanese but nevertheless it adorns much Japan-made Buddhist art. Fake oracle bones, bogus Mayan glyphs, and other types of unreadable writing have no value to epigraphers, but they tell us about the concerns, understandings and assumptions current among the people who make or consume them.

9 thoughts on “Junk to you, cool artifact to me

  1. Fake oracle bones, bogus Mayan glyphs, and other types of unreadable writing have no value to epigraphers, but they tell us about the concerns, understandings and assumptions current among the people who make or consume them.

    Well, fake oracle bones tell us that Chinese peasants in Henan at the close of the 19th century didn’t care very much about historical accuracy but cared quite a lot about making a living. And fake Classic Mayan on hotels in Acapulco – which was in any case outside of the principle Mayan culture areas – is the same thing: an attempt to use a bit of fake glitz to make more money by duping the ignorant/providing a bit of local colour. Same with tattoos; even if the tattooed person thinks it looks cool, bear in mind that they went to a tattooist and paid for the tattoo. Someone is always benefiting economically from these fakes. I don’t think the insights they provide are very profound, to be quite honest, and if anything actually is junk, it’s faked epigraphy.

    Bear in mind as well that people can believe in this stuff; some people genuinely believe, on the basis of the Los Lunas inscription (for example), that white people from Eurasia were the first people in the Americas, or were the people who introduced civilisation to the continent, or something along those lines. I’m not sure it’s all that worthwhile to spend time investigating frauds, fakes, and economically-incentivised aesthetic trends drawn from the ignorance of humans about each other as if they are something worthwhile or genuinely intriguing.

    Epigraphy, on the other hand, can tell us a huge amount about who was in contact with whom, how cultural transmission can work with certain kinds of information, how scriptural traditions can change, etc. The fact that the script we are using to write English today – along with those of classical Mongolian, Brahmi, Devanagari, Kawi, Baybayin, Runic, Cyrillic, Arabic, and so many others – comes from a successive series of changes to a script developed in Egypt about five thousand years ago is tremendously important. Siddham script is interesting in itself; much less interesting is the fact that it is used today in a tokenistic way by modern Japanese Buddhists. Real oracle bones are so much more important than the fakes that the fakes may as well be considered junk.

    I’m interested in your project nonetheless, primarily because cataloguing the ways in which people can use public ignorance to their economic advantage is a good inoculation against academic fraud and epigraphic fakery. Also because faked/nonsensical Chinese characters – and in China, faked/nonsensical Roman and Greek scripts – are quite funny.

  2. @Laura:

    “Fake oracle bones, bogus Mayan glyphs, and other types of unreadable writing have no value to epigraphers, but they tell us about the concerns, understandings and assumptions current among the people who make or consume them.”

    I agree, and I think it’s really interesting to see how these things are copied, passed around, sold, appropriated, and understood by various people. It’s interesting to see what people *do* with these kinds of things, and their reasons for doing so. I had the chance to travel to Oaxaca for a few summers between 2007-08, and there were a lot of faked archaeological artifacts being sold at the sites, in the markets, etc. People used Coca-Cola of all things to help give those faked artifacts an old patina.

    I also find it fascinating when people know things are fake (like the tattoos you mention–or maybe something like fake pearls) but they buy them, use them, and impose all kinds of personal meanings on them. Obviously, people can’t always get the real thing, or maybe they don’t care about having the real thing. Sometimes they just want something that’s “cool,” or that “looks good” or something along those lines. So we end up with fake Maya glyphs, fake artifacts, fake Picasso’s, and fake Rolexes being passed around in all kinds of interesting (and sometimes illegal) ways.

    That’s my long way of saying: Cool project, Laura.

    @Al:

    “I’m not sure it’s all that worthwhile to spend time investigating frauds, fakes, and economically-incentivised aesthetic trends drawn from the ignorance of humans about each other as if they are something worthwhile or genuinely intriguing.”

    Jeez Al, you’re such a curmudgeon sometimes! I think it’s totally worthwhile to look at these kinds of activities and economies. And the whole point of looking at these kinds of things is not just to determine legitimacy of artifacts, but to see how things are used, understood, and valued by various people–whether or not they know the objects in question are fakes. Obviously, in many cases we’re dealing with cases where people are being duped…but not in all cases. Sometimes people buy and wear things like fake pearls and fake Rolexes for some obvious economic (and social) reasons. In short: I think there is much, much more going on here than just cases of human “ignorance,” and I think it’s definitely quite interesting to look at the reasons why people do these sorts of things (economic, etc).

  3. My task will be to explain why non-linguistic writing is a worthy topic of when I publish this. One goal is to discuss why, even with fraudulent intent, such objects hold value.

    For example, the fake oracle bones have a fascinating history of manufacture and target audience.Their shape and beauty are two clues. There were understandings about antiquities current at the time that are reflected in their design and craftsmanship, as real oracle bones are generally burned, cracked bits that are not so lovely. And looking into their history and context also tell us “who was in contact with whom, how cultural transmission can work with certain kinds of information, how scriptural traditions can change.” It is ironic that archeologists are lauded for doing “garbage” excavation, but a linguistic anthropologist is admonished not to do the equivalent.

    It would be a shame if scholars missed opportunities to use unexpected types of data for analyses because of ideas about what counts as a legitimate objects of study.

  4. “It would be a shame if scholars missed opportunities to use unexpected types of data for analyses because of ideas about what counts as a legitimate objects of study.”

    I completely agree with you.

  5. Hey, I’m not saying you shouldn’t do it! And in all honesty, I love this stuff. I think it’s all wonderfully kitsch and some of it shows surprising artistic skill. I love Pacific art – the real deal – and I love researching the history and archaeology of Austronesian-speaking peoples, but I also love tiki bars.

    The fake oracle bones were created quite deliberately to take advantage of a change in urban attitudes to the bones, from valuing their (supposed) medicinal value as dragon bones to valuing the fact that they represent the earliest written works known in China. I don’t know what else the study of fake oracle bones could tell you beyond this. We know precisely why they were produced, by whom, and what for, and the same is true of most of these items. There doesn’t seem to be all that much behind them to investigate, even if they say a little about Henanese nous regarding the late-nineteenth century understanding of early Chinese history.

    Like I said, I love this junky stuff, and I’m still interested in what you’re saying. I just think elevating it, or claiming that it is even remotely comparable to epigraphic studies of the real objects, isn’t quite right. Sure, everything humans do is of relevance to anthropology, and all of it ‘equal’ in a metaphysical sense, but some things are of greater importance than others when it comes to answering questions about people.

    And I’m a little concerned that it is representative a trend in anthropology for researching things that are a couple of orders away from fascinating things. By that I mean, instead of cultivating an interest in early history and the nature of human life in, well, let’s say the Shang state, some social scientists would prefer to look at the cultural repercussions of how this is portrayed, claiming that it is an academic subject of equal merit to the study of the early human past itself. (Of course, they’re not mutually exclusive, and I’m not saying that this is true of you, Laura. It’s just a common trend in anthropology, for whatever reason.) That may be the case, but an identical argument could be produced for the next order – the study of the repercussions of the study of the repercussions of the study of Shang China – and the next. It strikes me as nihilistic. The oracle bones themselves are much more important than studies of the study of oracle bones, or a study of the fakes, and I don’t see any reason to budge from that view, much as I appreciate the charming aesthetics of the fakes.

  6. “We know precisely why they were produced, by whom, and what for, and the same is true of most of these items.”

    @Al there has not been any published description or analysis of the collection of fake oracle bones I photographed as of yet, so I don’t know how it is that we already know all about them.

    Also, here’s a question: Who gets to decide which objects are of greater importance to others? That’s not something I myself would feel comfortable deciding in advance. After we publish our research and essays, other scholars can express opinions about their worth, and they certainly do that.

  7. I’m expressing my objections to the idea. I’m not representing any particular group of people beyond myself, so the question of ‘who gets to decide’ is not especially relevant. My criteria for importance are my own, and I’m not telling you not to pursue this investigation. Perhaps you are right; perhaps my lack of interest in the origins of individual oracle bone fakes is misguided, and perhaps they will reveal a great deal that is of general interest. But it seems reasonably obvious to me that the oracle bones, representing as they do one of the earliest attested independent inventions of writing with enormous impact on the subsequent development of civilisation in east Asia and consequently worldwide, might be of more importance than a set of fakes produced seemingly to dupe nineteenth-century Chinese urbanites and academics out of their moolah.

    Your mileage may vary, of course.

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