Visual Things and the EAAs

After a hectic month and a half, I’m about to head off again to put the final touches on my PhD thesis, so a brief blog update seems to be in order…  We returned at the end of August from three weeks at the phenomenal site of Çatalhöyük.  Several photos were taken of us while we were there for inclusion in an article that the University of Southampton is preparing on our work, and since most of those pictures haven’t made the final cut for publication, I’ve put one to good use here!:

Working at the end of the season in the North Shelter, Çatalhöyük, Turkey, August 2010. Photo thanks to G. Earl.

I’ll post a link to the article when its ready, and will provide info on some of our activities at the site as soon as our reports on the season are complete.  Generally, though, we have a very broad remit and have been attending to everything from the design and display of public signage to critical museum engagement and more theoretically-based visual critique.

Immediately upon returning from Çatalhöyük, I left for the European Association of Archaeologists meeting, where Katherine and I chaired a session on ‘Objects and Images in the History of Archaeology.’  We’ve received positive feedback on the content of the session, and from my perspective, there were a couple of very clear themes.  The first was a recurring tension in the illustrative archives (from sites around the world) between the production of an archaeological image as an end in itself, and the production of that image for more probative investigation of the lives and meanings of the depicted people/things.  In other words, there were repeated examples in our session of archaeological illustrators making pictures that were apparently not then exploited to understand their subjects.  Thus the pictures seemed, effectively, to terminate the analytical process.  Some of this tension was hinted at in Cathie Sutton’s interesting paper on the archaeological outputs of Edward Bawtree in 19th century Canada, wherein one draftsperson on Bawtree’s project was quoted as suggesting that her job was “to copy not to invent.”  So too did Justine Wintjes speak of illustrators striving to depict ‘what they saw’ versus ‘what they knew.’  Such statements made me wonder about the preconceptions that illustrators bring to their work; about how these affect (or are shaped by) the interpretive practices of archaeologists themselves; and about the dearth of biographical information on illustrators in the history of the discipline (many of whom were female; sometimes married to the field excavators/directors).

The second theme that stood out for me was archaeologists’ lack of knowledge of how new visual technologies have been introduced and absorbed into the field.  This issue was evident in multiple papers where novel media like photography or television were launched in a kind of explosive fashion into the discipline, only to then be utilised in what seems — on a superficial level — to be a fairly conservative manner.  There are interesting underlying questions here about what is and is not ‘revolutionary’ in terms of visual media, and how far—and with what ramifications—one can push the boundaries on archaeological representation at different points in disciplinary history.

Anyway, I’ve been left with much to think about!  On that note, I begin my research fellowship at the Society of Antiquaries of London in October, and hope to provide regular updates on my progress there.  A general appeal has been circulated to Fellows of the Society for any details on people’s past engagements with the artist Alan Sorrell.  We’ve had what I perceive to be a fairly significant number of responses, and I’d love to hear from others with information or recollections.  Adieu until October!

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