Disinter/est: Digging Up Our Childhood

An Eastern Arts Board, Year of the Artist Commission

Performance Lecture: 24th March, 2001
Mill Lane Lecture Theatre 1, Mill Lane, Cambridge.

Display of 'Seven Research Tools': 17th March - 5th May 2001
Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology, Downing Street, Cambridge.

On the 1st August 1972 Joshua Sofaer was born in Mill Road Maternity Hospital in Cambridge. His elder sister Joanna was about to have her second birthday. By September 1973 the family had left for Edinburgh.

In this research project Disinter/est, brother and sister met in Cambridge to explore the city, the places of their childhood, the places they were before they can remember, and have used the practices of archaeology to see if it is possible to understand the forgotten past.

‘Those years of my earliest childhood are no longer a part of myself; they are external to me; I can learn nothing of them save – as we learn things that happened before we were born – from the accounts given me by other people.’

– Marcel Proust, In Search of Lost Time, Volume 3

Autobiography necessitates an experiential narrative, one that is predicated on introspection. The prevalence of psychoanalytic models for the understanding of infancy have resulted in a generic conception of the ‘autobiography’ of early childhood in terms of psychoanalytic tropes. As infancy precedes established long term memory, we can not access our own history with the same kinds of hindsight formulation that we would our later childhood, adolescence or young adult life. This mysterious era that is both of ourselves and of other lends itself to a rethinking of the relationship between self and autobiography. In tracing the ‘auto’ of infancy we necessarily have to negotiate an understanding that runs counter to traditions.

Archaeologists are interested in investigating the material world and using it to explore the past. This project challenges us to consider how different people view the objects that surround them in different ways, both at a single point in time and as changing individuals over time, in a setting that is on one hand familiar, yet on the other, incredibly distant. From an archaeological perspective, the infant child (ourselves) that we have been using as the subject of our case study belongs to a period of life analogous to prehistory. It is a time about which we remember nothing. It is an investigation of the self as other – a metaphor for archaeology as a whole.

During the research, the boundaries of archaeological method were inevitably challenged, or at least had to confront and engage with the disciplines of social anthropology, oral history and psychology. There was also a necessary negotiation of the pleasures and problems of working with family as both co-researcher and research subject. The process has been incredibly provocative, not only pushing the traditional boundaries of subject specialisms, but bringing together a sister and a brother in a social and working relationship they would otherwise never have encountered.