A Touching Story

One of the really cool things at the Royal Anthropological Institute’s International Festival of Ethnographic Film was the video library: a pop-up mediatheque where delegates could watch not only any of the screened films they may have missed, but also any of the DVDs in the RAI collection. This included a veritable treasure trove of archaeological films and while I only got to catch a couple of them, this one in particular stayed with me.

Volunteer Chloe and UCH patient Carol come to grips with an ancient Egyptian jar in Touching Objects.
UCL volunteer Chloe and UCH patient Carol come to grips with an ancient Egyptian jar in Touching Objects.

Touching Objects (2013) is a short film by independent British documentarist Sasha Andrews. The film follows Chloe, a Heritage Studies student and hospital volunteer, who cleverly brings objects from the UCL’s Petrie Museum collection in to be handled by in-patients as part of a wellbeing programme. The patient in this case is Carol, who is recovering from recent surgery, and her enthusiasm for the objects is infectious: a small jar “feel Russian” she says of as she tries to guess what it is, while a raw piece of sodalite stone which is described as having healing attributes “is so powerful […] very emotional!” Ultimately this is a nice little study of affectivity through the power of touch – a human quality unique to archaeology and an experience familiar to all archaeologists. After all, who can resist the desire to touch ancient things, to know them intimately by their texture, weight, temperature and – in this case – even their energy? Having just volunteered at a public artefact handling session for the Festival of Archaeology, I can definitely attest to the remarkable effect that handling real archaeological objects has: it’s as if these objects lack depth, lack a kind of realness, until their physical presence pulls you into their world.
Short films are experiencing a major comeback with the opportunities for exposure now available via online distribution, which is good news for early career filmmakers and those who simply wish to experiment with the medium. The RAI Film Festival cleverly included several shorts in their scheduling, but you may have also noticed the major film festivals and commercial cinemas increasingly doing the same (Pixar shorts in particular come to mind). It would be great to see more short films like this produced by or in collaboration with student and research archaeology projects.

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