Pushing the Boundaries of Archaeological Illustration

Last month we hosted the second Visualisation in Archaeology (VIA) workshop at Southampton, which brought together 16 presenters and more than 30 discussants from around the world to debate visual theory and practice in archaeology.  We’re now working towards completion of the final report on the event based on the critical evaluations of contributors.  This report should be ready for circulation in the early new year.

From my perspective, the highlight of the workshop was its mutual engagement of academic archaeologists and visual practitioners in an attempt to grapple with the on-the-ground realities of graphic production.  Archaeological illustration, in particular, seems to be an incredibly conservative field of practice wherein, for a variety of reasons (often based on the constraints imposed by employers, as well as long-standing disciplinary conventions), visual outputs can come across as mechanical and untheorised.  Illustrators’ work often goes unacknowledged, unreferenced and unconsidered both in the very volumes/forums for which the work has been commissioned, and in larger programmes of archaeological analysis.

I know of only a handful of archaeological illustrators who are truly endeavouring to push back against this predicament – that is, to challenge the establishment about its uncritical use of imagery and the cloak of obscurity it seems to have laid upon its practitioners.  Three of these illustrators were present at this year’s workshop, including Jennie Anderson who gave a talk about her work on mobile devices and interpretative display at UK archaeological sites.

Screenshot from Wayland’s Smithy 1 Interactive, showing textual & diagrammatic information displayed when user hovers curser over ‘hot spots’ in the reconstruction image. Interactive created by & © Jennie Anderson, 2009.

Jennie is the first I’ve seen who, among other things, has explicitly tried to incorporate visual ‘bibliographic’ referencing into her pictures, the intent being to demonstrate the historical legacy of an illustration – how other people’s pictorial and textual content has come to influence her images.  This is a philosophical and methodological approach that I’ve been trying to champion for a while now, as per this article.

Jennie’s work is reminiscent of the artist and graphic designer Ian Kirkpatrick’s practice which aims to express the ambiguity and construction at the core of image production.

Appropriated pasts, by Ian Kirkpatrick

Rather than producing sanitised views of the archaeological record, Ian plays with appropriation, montage, collage, and the mixing of media to create pictures which unsettle our gaze and overtly advertise their interpretive status.  Ian recently discussed this approach at a seminar at the University of Southampton where he linked it to his fine art practice and to the creative potential that artists can offer to the discipline.

Poster by Vasko Démou, University of Southampton

The illustrator Kelvin Wilson also crafts archaeological reconstruction imagery which does not purport to be objective truth, but rather an entangled product of personal and archaeological significance.  Kelvin’s illustrations mix contemporary life history and his own individual interests with archaeological data.  Indubitably, this mixture of personal experience and scientific knowledge is precisely what’s at the core of all illustrative work, yet rarely is it openly admitted or appreciated.

Screenshot from http://www.kelvinwilson.com

I would be keen to hear from (or of) other illustrators who are similarly working to destabilise our vision, challenging the way we think about and do visualisation in archaeology.  The time seems long gone when one could purport to be making neutral or dispassionate knowledge, but in the field of archaeological illustration this sort of claim appears still in need of confrontation.

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