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Sherlock Holmes: The Father of Material Culture?

Christopher Pinney, UCL

Sherlock Holmes was many things: cocaine addict, violinist extraordinaire, expert on Ceylonese Buddhism, master consulting detective, and accomplished amateur boxer. He was also a published anthropologist of sorts having (as is revealed in The Adventure of the Cardboard Box [1889]) published two short articles on the outer morphology of the human ear in the Anthropological Journal. But was he also a pioneer in Material Culture?

The firmest evidence for this proposition comes from the first chapter of The Sign of Four (1888). Titled “The Science of Deduction” there is much here that lays the ground for Alfred Gell’s later elevation of the Peircean notion of “abduction” as a key element in his theory of a new anthropology of art (Gell was an ardent Sherlockian).  But it is here that Holmes also reveals that several of his “works” were in the process of being translated into French for publication. These included a volume titled Upon the Distinction Between the Ashes of the Various Tobaccoes which detailed the visual appearance of 140 ashes of different cigar, cigarette and pipe tobaccos with the help of coloured plates. Visual signs and the ability to read them properly were crucial to Holmes’ new “exact science” one based first and foremost on rigorous observation. As he tells Watson: “To the trained eye there is as much difference between the black ash of a Trichinopoly and the white fluff of bird’s eye as there is between a cabbage and potato”.

Another work in translation described the “tracing of footprints, with some remarks upon the uses of plaster of Paris as a preserver of impresses.” This work was doubtless influenced by Notes and Queries in Anthropology’s pre-occupation with making transient indexical traces permanent with “paper squeezes” and other moulds, and was perhaps also inspired by the work of Gujarati pugees in identifying the movement – through footprints – of criminal tribes. There is an echo here of the “low common intuition” which Carlo Ginzburg suggests colonial practitioners such as W. J. Herschel appropriated when they took Bengali practices of “finger-tipping” and translated them into bureaucratically systematized regimes of finger-printing. Holmes’s pioneering work (including the Priory School narrative – see below) would also have a considerable amount of what, in our present bathetic age, we would term “impact” for it was the inspiration for George Whitty Gayer’s promotion of footprints in Indian police detective work. Gayer, an officer in the Central Indian Police published Footprints: An Aid to the Detection of Crime for the Police in Nagpur in 1909 and acknowledged Holmes’ pioneer work as an inspiration.

Perhaps of more interest from a Material Culture perspective is Holmes’ third monograph, which was also extensively illustrated, although he deprecated it as “a little work”. This examined the “influence of a trade upon the form of the hand, with lithotypes of the hands of the slaters, sailors, corkcutters, compositors, weavers and diamond-polishers”. Holmes declared these “of great practical interest to the scientific detective” but Holmes’ investigations need to placed in the context of the occultism and palmistry which would shortly bear fruit in William John Warner’s popular Cheiro’s Langiage of the Hand (1894) a quasi-Theosophical echo  (Warner claimed to have studied with Brahman palmists in India) of Charles Bell’s The Hand: Its Mechanism and Vital Endowments as Evincing Design (1833). Despite also being an Edinburgh surgeon Charles Bell was sadly only a remote relative of Joseph Bell who had taught Conan Doyle at Edinburgh and who is conventionally credited with providing the lineaments for Holmes’ character and method. From the viewpoint of intellectual history we might see Holmes work as indebted to the two Bells. But equally we might see it as prefiguring what we now know as techniques du corps. It is but a small leap from Holmes’ concern with the manner in which different kinds of work, reflecting cultural practice, come to remodel the body, to the work of later anthropologists. What for Bell was a singular and natural hand becomes for Holmes – in anticipation of Mauss and Leroi-Gourhan’s technogenesis – a concern with the nature of cultural influences “upon the form of the hand” as Holmes puts it. The concern in other works is with hands in the plural, in their social determination.

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