Scroll Top

Knitting, Memory, and Embodied Knowledge on the Terrace

by M. Bianca D’Anna ANAMED Post-Doctoral Fellow (2019-–2020)

Not everything that we learn sticks. My Latin and Greek teacher at school used to tell us that learning ancient Greek was like learning to ride a bicycle. False. The morphology of the aorist is gone, probably forever, with all due respect to the blessed memory of my teacher! But some things stay, even when we don’t expect them to.

Everything started with a message from Catie (Catherine Steidl). Our second week at ANAMED was about to finish. The weather was lovely, the sun warm but mild, and the terrace practically begged us to spend time looking east and getting to know each other. On September 25th, Catie texted in our newly created WhatsApp group: “Hi everyone! I came to do some knitting on the terrace […]. If you are interested in knitting with people (or learning!), let me know and we can coordinate something involving fibers and tea/coffee/wine…”

I learnt knitting and crocheting as a child. I used to spend long hours at my grandparents’ place, where my severe grandmother (nonna Dina)—a marvelous knitter—tried to teach me how to use hooks and needles. Without great success, though. She was too perfectionist and old school to be a good teacher, and I was too impatient to go through the long training period that all manual practices imply. As soon as I could, I avoided this painful duty of a “good-family girl.

When Catie texted, I had already been thinking of doing some crochet and maybe even knitting for a while. I wasn’t thinking about just picking it up again, as I could not remember even the basics, but rather trying from scratch to see what happens. My inspiration came only marginally from the Berlin subway, where it is not uncommon to meet young, often hipster dudes with black mount glasses and girls with loose knots on the top of their heads doing stuff with threads and needles. Rather, I was attracted by the physical, repetitive nature of the thing. Also talking with friends who knit for fun was inspiring, as well as meeting with others who use ancient fibers and textile tools to do interesting experimental works, such as Chiara and Romina.

So, I did try. We found a weird shop down in Cihangir, half dedicated to knitting, crochet, and sewing and half to notebooks, pens and paints, and run by various male members of a family. Laughing together, they also patiently taught me some Turkish vocabulary related to crochet. After buying a thick thread and a large hook (tığ), I went to my room, sat down, and chained and made single and double crochets. I found myself just slipping into the practice, even though the years since I last sat down by my nonna were embarrassingly many. But, here I am. My hands remembered. Even the sensation of the wool thread slowly moving through my fingers to assure the right tension was inscribed somewhere, and invested me as a weird madeleine. From that day on, I either crocheted in the evening, or I met the small circle of fellows on Sunday afternoons to spend time together knitting. Catie showed me new stitches and gave me suggestions. I looked at her hands moving and tried to replicate her confident gestures!

Knitting, physically making something through repetition, gave me an unexpected connection not only just to my past and to the other fellows, but also to my work. I am an archaeologist who deals with communities that did not leave written documents behind: that is, the history of nameless, anonymous people, which to me sounds like a much better definition than prehistory. I do what archaeologists usually do: I deal with sediments and the ways they accumulated through time, which is a way of defining and de-romanticizing the practice of archaeological excavation. But what I like best is pottery! Ceramics are a wonderful material; they break, of course, but they are very durable! And they show how people engaged themselves in a repetitive, physical practice—potting—to make something to be used in other physical, receptive practices—the preparation and consumption of food and beverages.

Archaeologists study ceramic form and decorations, how pottery stayed the same or changed through time, and how far the same forms and style were shared through space by different communities. But when we study ceramics we also wonder: where do potters get the clay and other raw materials? Did they make these choices for functional reasons or were they the result of tradition and cultural choices? How were the pots built, finished, and fired? How was the production organized and this knowledge transmitted: in the households or in large complex workshops? What kind of skills and know-how was need? And we also ask ourselves how the pots were used. Foodstuffs were kept, mixed, cooked, eaten, and drunk in ceramic jars, basins, pans, casseroles, plates, and cups. The link between pots and food is deep and multifarious, and potting and food preparation might also be profoundly entangled with each other as a result of a shared ensemble of similar gestures and know-how to perform the two activities (Gokee and Logan 2014).

And here we are, through ancient pots we arrived to bodies, gestures, know-how, and skills; to people who made pots and cooked, and to embodied subjectivity. Such a view of people, knowledge, and practice is very productive in archaeology, as the materials we deal with are the results of repetitive actions (Bulger and Joyce 2013). And these actions are themselves the results of different kinds of knowledge and memory, which are largely shared in the communities we live in and are acquired and transmitted within social contexts. Our “individual sensorimotor capacities are themselves embedded in a more encompassing biological, psychological and cultural context” (Varelaet al. 1991: 172–73).


Different ways of holding the hook, and each of us thinking “this is the right way!”

Doing crochet on the ANAMED terrace provided me with an unexpected link to the world of embodied knowledge and subjectivity. Knitting and crocheting was a knowledge transmitted to me only partly by words (“Don’t pull the yarn so tight, Maria Bianca!”) but mostly through watching my grandmother, and doing together, and having my grandmother’s hand guiding my hands, touching and moving them. The day that Catie wrote, I thought that she would need to teach me from scratch. But as it turned out, it was just marginally the case, as all the knowledge I needed had been inscribed in my body years before.  


Further readings and quoted works:

Bulger, Teresa Dujnic, and Rosemary Joyce. 2013. “Archaeology of Embodied Subjectivities.” In A Companion to Gender Prehistory, edited by Diane Bolger, 68–85. Chichester: John Wiley & Sons.

Gokee, Cameron, and Amanda L. Logan. 2014. “Comparing Craft and Culinary Practice in Africa: Themes and Perspectives.” African Archaeological Review (published online 12 June 2014).

Hicks, Dan, Mary C. Beaudry, and Zoë Crossland. 2010. “Materiality and Embodiment.” In The Oxford Handbook of Material Culture Studies, edited by Dan Hicks and Mary C. Beaudry. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Varela, Francisco J., Evan Thompson, and Eleanor Rosch. 1991.

The Embodied Mind: Cognitive Science and Human Experience

Cambridge, MA: Massachusetts Institute of Technology.   Wenger, Etienne. 1998.

Communities of Practice: Learning, Meaning, and Identity

Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.     

Thanks to Jeff Haines, Catie Steidl, and Carlo De Vita.