Containers / Containment
Location SOAS Main Building - 4429
Date and Start Time 02 Jun, 2018 at 09:00
Sessions 3


  • Chloe Nahum-Claudel (London School of Economics) email
  • Johanna Gonçalves Martín (École Plytechnique Fédérale de Lausanne) email
  • Tomi Bartole (RC SASA) email

Mail All Convenors

Short abstract

Containers are ubiquitous enablers of life processes. How is the capacity for containment conceptualised cross-culturally? Our interest lies in the making and use of containers, as animate or gendered things, and their material and semiotic relations to bodies, life processes and sociality.

Long abstract

Containers are one of the most essential artefacts of human craft, simply because they enable so much of what we do. They are ubiquitous in the ethnographic and archaeological record, as well as in museum collections. The category container has the virtue of being massively encompassing, while the concept of containment is useful and suggestive for its formal limitation. Thus containers may include eating and drinking vessels (gourds), carrying devices (bags and baskets), items of furniture (hammocks, chairs), locomotives (canoes), among others. These diverse classes of thing, usually considered separately, share a capacity for containment. And all are prostheses to life processes such as eating, drinking, moving, sleeping; as well as to social and economic ones, such as exchanging, hiding, or storing.

Furthermore, containers often relate to bodily processes because our bodies also are containers: our skulls contain brains, wombs contain offspring, lungs contain breath, and bellies food. Body parts are imagined as container-like in diverse ways, for example, Amazonian drinking gourds may be womb-like, while some Papua New Guinean peoples' hearts are figured as seeds/fruits containing knowledge and spirit.

We ask, in what manifold forms do processes of containment elicit life (and death) and have life-like properties? How is the capacity for containment conceptualised and materialised in the making and use of containers? When and how are containers gendered, animate, or humanised?

This panel invites archaeologists, anthropologists and others to reflect upon the material-semiotics of containment. We seek to understand the affordances of containment as quality and thing, concept and object.

This panel is closed to new paper proposals.


Swallowing Buddha: the recursive relation between container and contained in a Zen Buddhist monastery

Author: Giovanni Nubile (University of Milano-Bicocca) email

Short abstract

The paper analyses, through ethnographic data, a Zen Buddhist monastery qua container. Widening the concept, I will focus on how the monastery can elicit, with a sort of retrocausation, the aim of religious practice, superseding a human-centred approach.

Long abstract

The aim of this paper is to think the locus as a container. The place that I will discuss is a Sōtō Zen Buddhist monastery. Expanding the category 'container', I would like to show - through the ethnographic example of Zen religious practice - how the monastic site models the ascetic discipline of the residents in a nontrivial way.

A Zen monastery is often thought as the instantiation of a cosmic body composed by seven segments (Baroni 2002), each of them representing a part of the human body. Inside, the monks dwell and live in accordance with the Rule that governs - through ritualization (Bell 2009) - their body-minds. From a mundane perspective, the monastery seems to be a highly symbolic place that only collaterally affects the monk's religious practice.

However, how the place is embodied - and how the body is displaced - is one of the major tenets of the monk's training. Materiality in Zen is not nuanced by "meaning" and "value" but, rather, is meaning and value from the very beginning (Faure 2009; Heine and Winfield 2017).

Following Gibson (1979), I will argue that, focusing on place as a container, the Zen monastery has affordances for «doing Buddha», it is a container-niche that creates its own object through ritual induction. Finally, I will show how a «post-human» perspective is helpful, on one hand, to countervail a disembodied approach to Zen in the West, and, on the other, to reflect about the relation between concept and materiality.

Containers of Salvation: English Medieval Church Porches Redefined

Author: Helen Lunnon (University of East Anglia) email

Short abstract

Architectural details of English medieval church porches potently reference the Virgin's womb, the 'Sedes Sapientiae' and 'Maria Misericordia'. Through visual and textual evidence this paper argues that the ultimate container of Christian salvation was architecturally realised before church doors.

Long abstract

This paper draws on research conducted into the architectural and representational iconographies of English medieval church porches. Key examples will be used to demonstrate that these buildings were not simply precursors to the main event (i.e. the church interior) but conflated some of the most powerful of Christian notions: The Virgin's Womb, The Throne of Solomon, and the Virgin of Mercy. Porches were locations for the performance of several Christian rights of passage where the delegate would experience states of liminality and the soul risked corruption whilst in limbo. The design and architectural resonance of church porches was thus required to both facilitate entry into the heart of the Christian communion (the church proper) but also to care for those temporarily contained outside of the church's sealed envelop. Having outlined the primary textual evidence for the relationship between the Virgin's Womb and Solomon's Throne, the paper will present a detailed study of how porch exteriors introduced that which was contained within and also elevated the moment of entry. Meanwhile, vaulted interiors enclose and shield those within, protecting and preparing parishioners for baptism or marriage, and penitents awaiting re-admission into the church following confession.

The box-assemblage as a sentient artefact

Author: Lawrence Buttigieg email

Short abstract

The box-assemblage is the result of my fascination with Idoia; infusing it with Idoia-related zeal, I not only "make-real" this artefact, but project my sentience through it. Acting as interchange between us, the box-assemblage not just acquires responsibilities but takes on zoetic characteristics.

Long abstract

My graphic presentation focuses on the sentient qualities of the box-assemblage, an artefact which I create to assuage my angst stemming from the conflictual juxtaposition between my fascination with Idoia, a model I regularly work with, and the awareness that I can never fully comprehend the alterity embodied by her. Drawing on Elaine Scarry, I assert that by transforming and permeating with "Idoia-related devotion" the materials I work with, I am not only "making-real" the box-assemblage, but also projecting my own sentience through its agency. This mixed-media artefact, which aspires to serve as the quintessential sanctuary for manifold simulacra of Idoia inspired by my affectivity toward her, is a binary process whose intent is to aesthetically come to terms with such passion while expressing the subjective objectification of my inner self through her. Although at a componential level its materiality is incognizant and incapable of affection, as an Idoia-themed sanctuaried structure it is the result of my apperception of this woman's body and psyche, or rather the materialised maturation of my feelings toward her. Thus, it carries the twofold responsibility of enduringly sustaining and maturating my relationship with her and fulfilling my desire to mediate with that which represents otherness in my existence. Imbued with my imagination and acting as a point of interchange between myself and a specific female body, the box-assemblage not only acquires its own responsibilities and serviceableness but, notwithstanding the inanimateness of its materiality, it also takes on zoetic characteristics.

Painted dowry chests: the most popular containers in folk culture. Artifacts in contemporary everyday life

Authors: Maria Działo (Jagiellonian University) email
Monika Golonka-Czajkowska (Jagiellonian University) email

Short abstract

The article discusses the most popular containers in folk art which are painted dowry chests, also called hope chest or dowry chest in contemporary everyday life

Long abstract

The source of the article are field researches and the author's museum queries regarding chests in eastern Poland. These are dowry chests, richly painted in floral motifs, produced in craft centers in the 19th and first half of the twentieth century. Originally, crate boxes were used to store the dowry of the bride, which she received from her parents. Currently, a large number of these artifacts have survived in eastern Poland in private homes and museums. However, today they have a different function. For example, some antique chests have been converted by their owners for commercial use - such as a meat smokehouse or container for cattle's food. In other houses, the chests are kept with reverence as an element of heritage or grandmothers or great-grandmothers family treasures. These chests do not only store objects, but above all, memories, stories, biographies of people and things. In museums, on the other hand, the same chests are put on display, exhibited as the most valuable works of folk art. The article discusses the semiotics of the crates in the past and in the presence, the relations they have with their owners and the role they play in the community. The dowry chests used as containers are presented in this article with the support of rich photographic material collected during the author's fieldwork.

Containing the Other: Vietnamese traders in 'unruly' Odessa

Author: Marina Marouda (University of Sussex) email

Short abstract

Drawing on fieldwork on Vietnamese traders in commodity markets in Odessa, the paper considers the role shipping containers play in everyday market engagements, highlighting the ways in which such steel boxes effect the 'containment' of diasporic networks within prescribed market and social domains.

Long abstract

Drawing on ethnographic research on Vietnamese traders operating in wholesale markets in Odessa, the paper considers the role shipping containers play in quotidian market engagements, highlighting the ways in which cargo boxes - invented to facilitate global commercial flows - are effecting the 'containment' of diasporic trading networks within prescribed market and social domains.

In the Black Sea port of Odessa, shipping containers play a crucial part in the city's social life, facilitating global flows of goods. In a large outdoor trade fair in the city outskirts, containers serve a multitude of purposes. Positioned around the market as alternative to permanent fixtures, steel boxes serve as principal spaces for trade and sociality. Employed as box-like shops, containers are used for displaying and storing merchandise, and conducting daily transactions. Stacked up in two-storey rows, containers arrange market space into lanes dealing in specific types of commodity, which are the preserve of particular nationalities, thus configuring the marketplace into ethnic enclaves. The dark, lockable quarters of containers often serve as secure places where traders retreat to hide or sleep, hence fencing in goods and people.

Focusing on Vietnamese traders specialising in clothing and currency trade, the paper reflects on the effects containers have on trading and life matters. It looks at how containers allow for spatially distributed social interactions, keeping trading folk attached to circumscribed domains in the marketplace, where they find security and wealth making opportunities that are otherwise inaccessible to 'foreigners' in the city.

Thinking outside the box: archaeology, creative practice and the materialities of collecting

Author: Ursula Frederick (Australian National University) email

Short abstract

Historically, Australian archaeologists used all manner of containers to carry, sort and store the results of their research. This paper is an art-practice led exploration into the materiality of these boxes, and what they convey about places, people and the practices of a profession.

Long abstract

In 1969 a team of scientists identified ancient human remains in outback Australia. Unprepared for excavation but concerned that the bones might become damaged, the researchers packed the remains into a suitcase belonging to archaeologist John Mulvaney. The individual's remains were carried back to the national capital, whereupon she would become known as Mungo Lady, the oldest known human cremation in the world.

Today, Mulvaney's suitcase is in the collection of the National Museum of Australia, and clearly demonstrates how everyday objects may acquire profound meaning by virtue of what they contain. This suitcase has become a tangible symbol of archaeological discovery and world prehistory but is similarly significant for what it no longer holds; its emptiness conveys the story of Mungo Lady's eventual repatriation to the traditional owners of the region she came from.

Prior to the widespread production of archival management systems, and often as a result of remote area fieldwork Australian archaeologists used all manner of containers available as a means of handling, carrying, protecting and storing. As a result, wooden tea chests, biscuit tins, cardboard boxes and metal cases have become the material expression of archaeological practices: excavation, sampling, sieving, categorising, dating. In this paper, I discuss my creative-practice-led investigation into the materiality of these containers, their text labelling and the sensory effects of encountering their fabric. What emerges from this accumulation of boxes is an awareness of landscape and biography: a network of places, people and collaborations that reflect the history of a developing profession.

Radioactive waste containment: aesthetics of material and social spillover into public space

Author: Petra Tjitske Kalshoven (University of Manchester) email

Short abstract

In the context of an ethnography on decommissioning in the nuclear industry, I discuss radioactive waste depositories in the UK and the Netherlands to compare practices of radioactive containment, arguing that its aesthetic spillovers speak eloquently to conceptions of public space.

Long abstract

In the context of a wider-ranging ethnography on social values and perceptions involved in processes of decommissioning in the nuclear industry, I draw on my experience with two radioactive waste depositories to compare practices of containment. The sites of comparison are the UK's Low Level Waste Repository (LLWR) close to Sellafield in West Cumbria and the Dutch Central Organisation for Radioactive Waste (COVRA) close to the Borssele nuclear power station in Zeeland. Both sites are in the business of containing low- and intermediate-level radioactive waste through encasement in concrete-filled drums—COVRA is also responsible for containing high-level waste. Whilst technical and safety discourse and practice at the two sites are quite similar and couched in international regulations for appropriate care, local integration of waste infrastructures shows interesting differences. In addition to its claims to practice 'the art of storing', COVRA provides storage space to museums. It also invites artists to organise nuclear-themed exhibitions on site, and its buildings have been designed and painted in playful reference to their function of containment. LLWR, although less forthcoming to the general public, emphasises strong relations with surrounding communities and highlights the environmental potential of nuclear landscapes. Paying attention to these diverse aesthetics of material and social spillover, I argue that COVRA's and LLWR's missions of containment reveal distinctive modes of self-representation and contextual embeddedness that reflect differences in preoccupations with public space and public involvement.

Life (Un)Contained: Housing and the Domestication of Life in Timor-Leste

Author: Gabriel Tusinski (Singapore University of Technology and Design) email

Short abstract

In Timor-Leste, houses are not just containers for human life, but involve tracing robust connectivities to broader ecological and cosmological worlds. Post-conflict governmental efforts to rehouse the displaced in prefabricated dwellings have run up against indigenous notions of "house life".

Long abstract

This paper argues that failed post-conflict efforts to rehouse 'vulnerable' persons in pre-fabricated modular housing programs reveal the tensions between dissonant cultural conceptions of houses in contemporary Timor-Leste. Paradoxically, despite an extreme housing shortage and the widespread lack of monetary resources to rebuild housing stock following East Timor's independence, most governmental housing projects lay abandoned. What can account for this abandonment? Desertion of social housing under conditions of dire lack suggests that for Timorese there is more to houses than shelter. Throughout Timor, houses are more than containers for human life. Rather, Timorese cultural ideologies and reflexive sensibilities about houses frame them as one particularly privileged 'form of life' among others. Indigenous Timorese houses act as channels of connectivity between people, the natural world, and the 'dark world' of ancestral and other spiritual beings. I explore the contrast between the classical Greek categories of domos and oikos as a heuristic device for indexing current divergent Timorese views of housing. The former, domos, the etymological root of "domestic" and "domicile," emphasizes containment, boundedness, and separation, while oikos, the root of "economy," "ecology," and "ecumene," points to houses' generative connections to a broader lived world. I show that while indigenous Timorese house concepts entail both of these inflections, contemporary Timorese governmental housing policies emphasize houses as utilitarian vessels for the containment of human life - to the detriment of a more commodious conception of "house-life" as a dynamically interconnected and morally inflected structure of kin and place-based belonging.

The heart of stone: engineering endurance against the fatal living processes in Western Amazon

Author: Lukasz Krokoszynski (University of Warsaw) email

Short abstract

Contemporary local attempts at "strengthening" the surfaces of living beings seek to capture endurance. The resulting "container effects" are moments in the world of chronically deficient permanency. They provide powerful imagery of the causes and results of the living-as-dying processes.

Long abstract

Reflecting from contemporary Western Amazon, permanence is a limited good, antithetical to the fatal principles of life processes. What we call containers and containment amount to engineered moments in the process of living-as-dying. These moments are created by attempts at: maintaining the naturally depleting life value; control of the nesting positions that result from ineluctable transferences of these vital values (reproduction, life maintenence and perishing).

This paper overviews some of the means with which such glimpses of permanence are locally construed through sources (i.e. historicized knowledge-substance) understood as hard, impermeable and imperishable. Modern ethnographic examples range from strengthening of the new-born's body, through toughening of the shaman's bodily shell, to urban constructions made of concrete, strong surnames and laws, the word of God, or the 'modernizing' process. These spatialized moments focus a much broader reflection on the living process, since they deal with the production, maintenence and destruction of life.

The ethnographic imagery of containing (principle of the 'classical' Native American 'Mastery/owning' relations) calls for attention to topological and mereological relations/positions, as well as to their inevitable interplay of negotiations and inversions. Traduced into anthropological perspective, such potent spatialized and materialized moments allow a glimpse into some Euro-American givens pervading long-standing understandings of the processes of life production and death, sociality and kinship, modernity and tradition.

Analyzing Fijian mats as containers of female essences and as female bodies

Author: Jara Hulkenberg (University of the South Pacific) email

Short abstract

This paper suggests there is a metonymic relation between indigenous Fijian mats and female bodies. Mats are containers of the essences of the women who make them and materializations of female bodies with the associated nurturing and protective qualities in life and death.

Long abstract

As female bodies nurture and protect new life in the womb, Fijian mats are said to fulfill an important nurturing and protective function in life and death. This association with female bodies is further reflected in the names of specific elements of Fijian mats. The upper surface of the mat is called the stomach and has an important life giving function. The underside is the back, the diamond shapes that are created when strips are plaited crosswise are the eyes. Some mats have squares at the outer corners projecting outwards which are the ears. The edge from where you start weaving is referred to as the head. A mat must always lie on its back with the belly facing upward and the 'head' facing forward. Otherwise the mat cannot fulfill its nurturing, protective function when a person sits or lies on it. Influenced by the works of Weiner and Schneider (1989), Miller (2005), Geismar and Bell (2009), I am suggesting there is a metonymic relation between Fijian mats and female bodies. They are containers of the essences of the women who make them and materializations of female bodies with the associated nurturing and protective qualities. Like Fijian women, mats presented as gifts in ceremonial exchange have an important role in confirming and establishing 'paths of kinship' which tie all indigenous Fijians to one another.

The heart and the work of the heart: The 'discovery' of an-other inside

Author: Tomi Bartole (RC SASA) email

Short abstract

The recent focus on Christianity made the 'discovery' of a person's inside that has impinged upon the prospect of relational analytics in anthropology. My ethnography attends to the insideness by presenting ethnographic vignettes of the twofold conception that Awim people (Sepik) have of themselves.

Long abstract

The recent focus in anthropology on Christianity has put into doubt the adequacy of relational analytics. The transcendence of God and the experiences of conversion have brought about, Robbins claims, an interruption of relations. Robbins' own response is a schism between the individual and the relational person, while Mosko, on the other hand, argues for an inward and unaffected extension of relationality. Further, Holbraad and Pedersen, who took transformation (through conversion) seriously, propose to attend to the qualitative transformation of relations. The framework of the current panel, however, allows to reformulate the terms of the debate and recast the above propositions as: Christians do not contain relations; Christians invariably contain relations; and Christians contain qualitatively different relations. Thus articulated, the debate, also dubbed post-relational, amounts to a 'discovery' of an-other inside. My ethnography of the Awim people (Sepik) offers an approach that attends to the inside by evincing a twofold conception of the person. In Awim every person has a heart (manga) that metamorphoses from fruit to seed and from seed to fruit, engendering a container. But when the heart is made verb - mangananm or 'the work of the heart', this is evinced as the continuing constitution anew of a spiral-form that elicits haptic qualities rather than visual ones (concealment/elicitation) associated with the container-form. The work of the heart is materially effective thoughts that revolve around existential concerns with life itself, thus eliciting an inside dissimilar from the container-heart that is associated with social action.

This panel is closed to new paper proposals.