• Cassie Gordon

DoT #2: Time's Arrow — End-Stopping

Yesterday I talked about time’s arrow and the intuitiveness of a unidirectional nature to time as you and I experience it. I touched on archaeological narrative, married with the process of excavation, as a form of chiastic structure. Today I am going to continue on with a similar theme: that archaeological periodisation can possess the quality of another literary technique. The focus of this post is end-stopping.


Image: Double Portrait of the Artist in Time 1935 by Helen Lundeburg, oil on fiberboard, Smithsonian American Art Museum

End-Stopping


End-stopping is a feature in poetry where a line ends with a grammatical pause. It isn’t just the line that pauses, though. It is the thought—or concept—that is rounded up by a grammatical pause (a colon or semi-colon; a comma; a period). End-stopping is sort of an antithesis to enjambment (which I’ll cover as a concept for archaeology in the final installation for my Drift of Time series this week).


‘Days’

What are days for?

Days are where we live.

They come, they wake us

Time and time over.

They are to be happy in:

Where can we live but days?

Ah, solving that question

Brings the priest and the doctor

In their long coats

Running over the fields.

By Philip Larkin[1]


Where Can We Live But Days?


2020 has been a really weird year for experiencing time. Does time count down? Can time be up? Will time run out? Do the seconds tick up or down? Ugh! There have been days that felt slow, where the seconds tick by molasses-like, but the months have seemed to dissolve in a mere instant.


I feel like English poet Philip Larkin’s poem, above and below, really captures this weird time and the ritual of daily life. I think Days is a good choice for illustrating end-stopped lines in poetry as well as making the reader consider their place in time, in days. It makes me wonder, how we might think about individual actors of the past?


I’m going to show you the poem again. The first time you would have read the poem would have been at your natural pace; but the second time around I have emphasised the end-stopped lines for you. When you read it again, pause at the end of each emphasised line, take in the thought, and notice how the end-stopped lines have a completeness to them.

What are days for?

Days are where we live.

They come, they wake us

Time and time over.

They are to be happy in:

Where can we live but days?

Ah, solving that question

Brings the priest and the doctor

In their long coats

Running over the fields.

Periodisation


When we talk about periodisation in archaeology, to an extent, we are end-stopping the lines of the archaeological past. The way that we assign arbitrary terms to periods feels complete, and has a nice sense of completeness to it, but I'm quite sure that people who lived in the past never thought of themselves as existing in the Pleistocene or the Holocene; the Palaeolithic or Neolithic; or the Stone Age or Bronze Age.

Don’t get me wrong — I think that periodisation is almost necessary in archaeological discourse. It is a way for us to communicate an archaeological narrative to ourselves, between each one another, with traditional custodians, and to the public (of the present and of the future). It is also a way that we can structure our own (hi)stories and provide a quantifiable form of validation to the living cultures tied to the archaeological past.

What's In a Name?

Periodisation is a way of compartmentalising, and wrapping up, chunks of time and partitioning them into neat little packages. We get to date things (absolutely or relatively) and say, “yes, this has a place in space, and also exists at a point in time in a way that I can comprehend.” We like to name things: I don't mean we as archaeologists, but we as humans. Even if we can’t really comprehend the space in time from now to 500 years ago (or 11,600, or even 3.3 million ), giving something a name—like an age, a period, or a label—gives that point in time a sense of reality that enables us to talk about it more easily.

When we give something archaeological an age, in a sense, we make it real. We can turn it from a nebulous concept into something that is not only rooted physically in space but also has a place in time — a place where we can start with our story. I believe that as long as we don’t get caught up in rigid periodisation where said ‘periods’ aren’t challenged, or aren’t fluid enough to allow for reflexive re-definition, that periodisation is only a helpful tool, just in the way that adding a full-stop to the end of a line in a poem wraps up that thought in a neatly tied punctuation-bow. That sort of a rounded end to a line in a poem is still just one part of a whole though. It is part of a bigger picture (or a longer poem).

Days Are Where We Live

We can’t always tie things up with neat little bows though.Unfortunately the nature of the archaeological record doesn’t really allow for that: it just isn’t that simple. Instead of impressing strict parameters into the way we interpret the archaeological record, perhaps we can consider an alternative approach: the antithesis to end-stopping, enjambment. I hope that consideration of enjambed lines in an archaeological context might counter the reductive nature of periodisation. The reality of our daily lives is much more nebulous, fluid, and ephemeral than a neat assemblage of material remains. In tomorrow’s post, we’ll take a look at art, archaeology, and The Law of Impermanence.

Image: Offensive 2018, Michael Leunig


Until then, I want to leave you with something to reflect on, and to add your thoughts about on the festivalCHAT chat page ! For me, I have felt that everything I've experienced during this Covid-19 pandemic has had a profound influence on the way that I perceive time in my daily life, and by extension how I think about time in archaeology. If you’ve been somewhere in lockdown or isolation, how has time felt different for you? I'd love to hear from you! Please, share your thoughts here!



Footnotes

[1] Larkin, P 2004, ‘Days’ in Collected Poems, Farrar, Straus and Giroux, New York.

© 2020 by Cassie Gordon as part of CassieGordonArchaeology.com

I acknowledge the Wurundjeri people of the Kulin Nation as the traditional custodians of the land on which I live. I acknowledge that the land of this country was stolen and that sovereignty was never ceded. I pay my respects to all elders past, present, and emerging.