Modern Mardi Gras And Ancient Rituals

Kristina Killgrove

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Mardi Gras or Fat Tuesday is synonymous with New Orleans, but parades and other events are found throughout the US Gulf Coast. Originally a way to celebrate with rich, fatty foods on the day before Lent, Mardi Gras in the US means multiple parades involving floats bankrolled by ‘krewes’ that throw beads, candy, stuffed animals, and more.

I interviewed Laurie Wilkie, an archaeologist at the University of California at Berkeley, who has studied the archaeology of Mardi Gras. But rather than excavating, this archaeologist immerses herself in the parade and analyzes the artifacts she obtains. If we think about the parade as a performance and investigate how beads change through time, Wilkie thinks that we can get closer to understanding ancient rituals too.

960x0 1A Maid from the royal court of Endymion throws beads as the Krewe of Endymion Mardi Gras parade rolls through New Orleans, Saturday, Feb. 6, 2016. (AP Photo/Gerald Herbert)

KK: When did Mardi Gras start? Does it have a very old historical tradition, or is it a more modern invention?

LW: Carnival celebrations in Europe pre-date Christianity, but like so many other pagan festivals, the Church found a way to incorporate them into the religious calendar. New Orleans likes to claim that the first Mardi Gras there was held in 1699 — but the style of Mardi Gras celebrations we see today are a largely American celebration, modeled after the parades of the “Cowbellions” in Mobile, Alabama in the 1850s.

KK: How did you get interested in the topics of Mardi Gras and beads?

LW: I went to my first Mardi Gras while developing dissertation research in Louisiana. I was wonderfully astounded by it all and really wanted, as an archaeologist, to know more about all these crazy plastic beads getting hurled about. I found that no one was dealing with the material aspects of street celebrations during Mardi Gras. I wanted to know more about Mardi Gras’ history from the street level—where most of us experience it! Did some parades really throw better beads than others, and if so, why? How do crowds shape the kinds of beads that parade givers choose to throw? Do the styles of beads shift over time due to technology changes or fashion changes or both? These and many more questions got me thinking about how I might design a study to learn the answers.

KK: Why are beads thrown for Mardi Gras? Are there parallels in other cultures? 

LW: As best I can tell, like so many other aspects of Carnival, the throwing of beads started as one person’s material joke—a carnival king threw fake strands of gems and rings to his “loyal subjects” sometime in the 1890s, and by the early 1920s, one of the Krewes, probably Rex, started as a group regularly throwing strands of glass Czech beads. The throws were popular, and others quickly copied. By the 1930s and 1940s, there is film footage where you can see maskers throwing beads from sacks. By the 1950s, floats were being redesigned to hold many more beads. You could say that this kind of celebrating by giving away things isn’t that different from the peoples of the Pacific Northwest holding potlatches or the Romans giving big feasts.

KK: Isn’t attending Mardi Gras parades for research really just an excuse to get paid to go to New Orleans? Why is this event important from an anthropological perspective?

LW: I’ll admit that I originally thought I would do one field season and get out, and then it happened that my first real field season was in 2000, when entry into the new millennium was cause for extra celebrations and resulted in new innovations in beads. The following year coincided with the horror of the 9-11 attacks, and raised real questions about the wisdom of large public festivals—parade-givers and goers responded with a noticeable surge in red-white-blue beads. Each year I thought “I can wrap this up now”, and something else happened—perhaps most notably the devastation of Hurricane Katrina. What I saw through repeated visits to Mardi Gras was the ways that people—on the floats and on the ground–use this very public celebration to express hopes, ambitions, fears, anger, economic frustrations, love, pride and community, state and national identities through plastic beads. Something innocuous and really, kind of silly, is used to debate very serious social issues—sexism, racism, classism—to name just a few. I think because its done in costume and with plastic trinkets, it becomes a safe space for society to push these issues into a very public forum. The parade of Muses just ran Thursday night, and a friend sent me pictures of floats featuring “Donald Trump Lemon Head Candy: for conservative sourpuss in you” with Donald Trump’s face, and another float dealing with the recent debate over “southern heritage” that arose when the statue of Robert E. Lee was removed from Lee Circle in New Orleans. Mardi Gras is a time when people can be honest with one another and take some of the tension out of those sensitive discussions by throwing beads at them. I think those are observations that are not just anthropologically important, but important for thinking about how we productively engage with one another in a free society.

KK: I am intrigued by “bead lust,” a term you use in your book. What is this, and why do you think people are so excited about catching “throws” at Mardi Gras?

LW: I’ve heard it used by a number of folks to describe the crazy feeling that overtakes you in the context of Mardi Gras where all of a sudden these stupid beads become really important to you—like knocking-down-a-little-old lady-who-will-then-retaliate-by-putting-her-heel-through-the-back-of-your-hand-important. When you are surrounded by thousands of screaming people, many of whom are wearing beads already, and lunging about to catch them, its hard not to be infected. Some have argued that Mardi Gras is about the worst aspects of Capitalism, and is merely a space where unfettered greed reigns supreme. Maybe there is something to that, but people in the crowd also are constantly giving beads and throws to little kids or people who haven’t caught so many, so its not just about greed, it is also about generosity. Beads, particularly the metallic, are darn pretty as they twirl through the air at you. Some psychology studies demonstrate that humans are drawn to “shiny,” so that is probably a part of why beads continue to reign supreme among throws despite their lack of real function. But I also think you can’t underestimate the cathartic value of screaming, jumping, grabbing, competing and being foolish. After all, Mardi Gras is about working out the poison in your soul before entering into the reflective and abstinence period of Lent.

KK: You write in your book, Strung Out on Archaeology, that one of the first things that piqued your interest in Mardi Gras was that “the beads most valued by parade goers could usually be obtained by women if they flashed their body parts,” and that this gendering of bead-lust may be archaeologically significant. Can you expand on potential ways in which contemporary Mardi Gras could serve as a sort of ethnographic analogy for ancient practices?

LW: In the case of women showing their breasts, we see a portion of the population who is supposed to act one way (a lady does not show her breasts in public!) using carnival to subvert social norms and be rewarded for it. Anyone who watches these interactions also sees the ways that their act of defiance can be policed and disciplined. For instance, a woman who shows may be then the target of unwanted touching, or, unlike the person who asks her to show, subject to arrest. So as an analogy, I would love it if the archaeology of feasting, perhaps, focused more on how attendees shaped these performances. Some archaeologists are doing this, but its not as widespread as it should be.

KK: Along those lines, then, although your work is about the contemporary anthropology of Mardi Gras, it speaks to the potential to excavate ephemeral activities like parades. Why is it important for archaeologists to find evidence of celebrations that happened once a season, once a year, or less often? And how can we do that?

LW: I think feasting is a great example of archaeologists finding evidence of ephemeral and transitory events. I often think I would love to put an excavation unit beside St. Charles Ave to recovered material traces of Mardi Gras parades past. Events like feasts, pageants, or tending to cemeteries, or smaller rituals like burials, marriages, puberty rites, are important moments in personal and community histories. They are moments when groups redefine themselves and assert who they are. I saw this very clearly in the Mardi Gras after Katrina, when so many families came back from hurricane-caused relocations to celebrate Mardi Gras, because celebrating Mardi Gras helped them assert who they were in a physical, lived way. Place was central to that performance, we need to remember this when we work on archaeological sites.

KK: Even though you’re not digging, your work brings to mind a recent archaeological excavation of a trash heap full of E.T. games from Atari. What do you find compelling about the archaeology of modern objects, and what can it tell us about ourselves today?

LW: When we look at what makes humans humans, the big distinguishing factor between us and all the other life forms is that we have a lot of stuff.So much stuff. Stuff that we invest a lot of time, effort and meaning into. Archaeologists sometimes use time as a way of creating artificial distances between those of us who are “modern” and peoples of the past or other societies. We tend to see ourselves as “modern” and somehow inherently different from people in the past. But we use things in the same ways—not just for their functional value, but also for their symbolic value. Talking about how we position ourselves in our communities through material culture–such as by wearing a t-shirt with a university logo–shows that it’s not so odd that one group or another in the past chose to decorate their pottery differently or wear distinctive hair styles or prepare their foods in particular ways.