Ian Hodder has just made another discovery. This one is unlikely to appear in any scholarly journal—even though he says it has great implications for understanding local culture and symbology. Konya, the stepping-off point for Çatalhöyük, with a population of over 1 million, has just one liquor store. Hodder says this single fact—were it unearthed by archaeologists 10,000 years from now—would show just how different life in Konya was from, say, life in Fresno, Calif., which has the highest alcohol-related morbidity in the United States.
OK. Obvious. But what can archaeologists say about differences at the household or individual level? Right now, not 10,000 years in the past or in the future. What would they make of the stuff in my house, for example, which my wife has appointed in an eclectic blur of outsider art, dumpster diving and Scandinavian modern (aka Ikea)?
“Most of the stuff in your house will be, you know, very cultural,” Hodder says. “You’d probably find that there’s very, very little in your house that was individual, that was never found in anyone else’s house. It would normally be part of a pattern, even if you think it isn’t.”
This does not fit with my self-perception of our being decidedly avant-garde.
For example, what pattern, I wonder, would Hodder make of the box of Iranian Barf laundry soap that I bought in Armenia 20 years ago and that sits on a shelf in my office? Will archaeologists in the 121st century even know that barf once meant “snow” in Persian?
Before I can ask, Hodder returns to patterns, symbology and culture, pulling an iconic symbol of American culture out of his rabbit’s hat: the toilet.
“Americans have huge numbers of toilets,” he says. “Why is that?”
“Because we have big asses,” I say. “That’s why we need a lot of toilets.”
Hodder assures me that he’s not being facetious. “The American fascination—whatever it is—with toilets,” he says, “is very much a cultural thing that needs to be explained in those sorts of terms.”
Then why not just go out and interview Americans about our toilet fixation? It’s not like we’re buried under the living room floor and our habits have to be sussed out by studying porcelain shards in the middens. Just ask me what you want to know.
“Archaeologists don’t believe that. They think that . . . ” Hodder begins, before pausing. “I would argue strongly,” he says, having gathered his thoughts, “that if I ask you why you have so many toilets—say you were in California—you would give me some answer that would be some partial understanding of what is really going on. That many of these things are not easily explicable in words, but yet there are deep reasons for them.” Hodder explains that not being “a specialist in toilets” himself, he doesn’t know what the reasons are, but—“having been brought up in England”—he knows that “there’s a major difference.”
I agree. There is a huge difference between American and British bathroom habits and fixtures. For one, American toilets work and British ones don’t. “The mechanism in your toilets is horrible.”
“That’s because we don’t mind about them. You’re the ones who . . . ”
“But I want it to flush.”
“You do . . . because you’ve got a toilet neurosis.”
I do not, I insist. It’s just that after many years in and out of former British colonies, I am far too familiar with the Armitage Shanks First Principle of British Plumbing, which states that there is an inverse relationship between the time remaining before an excruciating and embarrassing episode of explosive diarrheal distress and the probability that—in lieu of a comforting and proper flush—depressing the button atop a British toilet will deliver anything more than a pathetic gob of spit.
“The British toilet,” I say—as though rendering judgment on the collective accomplishments of the Empire—“you push it and nothing happens.”
“I know,” Hodder says. “But we don’t mind. See, that’s a cultural difference.”
You bet it is.