How can sketches of a twentieth-century anthropologist-in-the-making tell us just as much about the field of anthropology as we know it today, as they can about the subject of the fieldwork itself?
When Arthur Bernard Deacon began his anthropological research of a South Pacific civilization in 1927, he couldn’t have predicted the value his meticulous field sketches would have on the legacy of the people of modern day Vanuatu or on the field of anthropology itself, any more than he could have foreseen his own untimely death.
But for a society unwittingly endangered by imperialistic influence and without extensive written history, it would be Deacon’s raw “I-witness” account of its customs, language and traditions that would not only enable it to be preserved for its future generations but to also be studied by many leading anthropologists and researchers to come.
A picture (or sketch) says a thousand words
Deacon’s original drawings and notes, a collection now long since cataloged in the archive of the Royal Anthropological Institute of Great Britain and Ireland (RAI), and recently accepted into UNESCO’s Memory of the World Program, capture that which posthumous secondary research cannot—the unmediated firsthand account of a vanishing culture and the methods by which a promising twentieth-century anthropologist might achieve these results.
Like many primary sources, Deacon’s drawings and field notes give us a glimpse not only into the research and the mind of the researcher himself, but of the historical context that colored the discipline and time period in which Deacon studied and lived.
Deacon’s sand drawing sketches, arguably the most widely renowned work archived in his wake, demonstrate the multi-faceted significance of such primary research. For one, the preservation of these sketches enables the continued practice of sand drawing, one of the most important traditions of Vanuatu both then and today. According to UNESCO, Deacon’s original drawings are “of great value to the people of the islands of Vanuatu eager to retain knowledge of their heritage,” as they continue to refer to these illustrations as a ‘how-to manual’ even in present-day.
Another significant element of primary research like Deacon’s is the light it sheds on the evolution of the scientific discipline itself. In this case, Deacon’s schematization of sand drawing-- or in other words, the structure he put around the creation of these fragile creations—reflects the anthropological concepts of ‘cultural patterning’ and ‘diffusion’ that were being popularized at Cambridge at the time Deacon studied. This idea illustrates the broader shift taking place from anthropology as a ‘natural science’ preoccupied with evolution to a ‘social science’ more interested in the psychology, culture and sociology of human populations.
Similarly, one of the unique opportunities offered by studying original materials is a glimpse at the intersection and interaction between the researcher and the historical context of the time. In Deacon’s case, it was clear from his sketches that to some extent, he too was more interested in the more social aspects of his research. While the prevailing western sentiment of Deacon’s time would have encouraged him to study the people of Vanuatu as a more objectified “primitive” species, Deacon often chose to annotate his notes with people’s first names, suggesting a more intimate respect for the people he studied.
Introducing archive collections into everyday research
The ability for modern-day researchers to interact with archival content is critical to the understanding of not only specific research areas in their discipline, but to understanding the evolution of the discipline itself. Without the integration of these sources into everyday research, huge amounts of historical context is lost or displaced, and researchers are left only to build upon the published interpretations and insights of their predecessors, robbing them of the opportunity to pursue new lines of inquiry themselves.
As a result, the archival collections found in historic societies and scholarly associations like The Royal Anthropological Institute of Great Britain and Ireland aren’t something that should be considered supplementary, but rather integral to the process of research innovation and advancement. Making these collections widely accessible is critical to this objective, as digitization can now transcend many historic constraints and add a layer of discovery and engagement of primary sources we once never thought possible.
Now researchers will be able to find the likes of Deacon’s sketches without a travel grant to RAI’s offices, and to lend their own interpretations to the raw materials left behind in his and so many others’ wakes.
And who knows? It could be your field notes researchers are studying one day.
About Wiley Digital Archives and The Royal Anthropological Institute of Great Britain and Ireland Collection
The complete archive collection from the Royal Anthropological Institute of Great Britain and Ireland will be available on Wiley Digital Archives this spring. The notes, drawings, and recordings of Arthur Bernard Deacon (1903-1927) will be featured as part of the esteemed collection, along with original photographs, maps, drawings, reports, papers, surveys and more spanning 1871 to 1967.
To learn more about Wiley Digital Archives, visit www.wileydigitalarchives.com
RAI’s collection of the original drawings and notes of Arthur Bernard Deacon was awarded status of documentary heritage by UNESCO’s Memory of the World Program in 2012.
UNESCO, the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization, established the Memory of the World Program in 1992 as part of a growing awareness of the precarious state of preservation of, and access to, documentary heritage in various parts of the world. The vision of the program is “that the world’s documentary heritage belongs to all, should be fully preserved and protected for all and, with due recognition of cultural mores and practicalities, should be permanently accessible to all without hindrance.”
Pic 1: Schematized sand drawing of “The Turtle” (Photo credit: RAI)
Pic 2: Modern-day sand drawing in Craig Cove, Ambrym (Photo credit: Stephen Zagala)