The thesis!

Sara's Thesis
Sara's Thesis, photo by me.

Wonderfully, I submitted my PhD a few weeks back &, amongst other things, am now preparing for my viva voce exam (aka my thesis defense).  I’ve posted below the abstract of my doctorate, in case there’s any interest in knowing what I’ve been toiling over for the past three years!  Here it goes…


Doctor of Philosophy


by Sara Perry

Archaeologists have long scrutinised the relationship of images to disciplinary knowledge creation.  However, to date, very little attention has been given to archaeological visual media and visual methods as generative tools.  Visualisations work to make things possible—income, infrastructure, status, security, ideas and expertise—and their shrewd application has significant consequences for professional development and conceptual/methodological growth.

The following thesis embarks on a micro-scale study of the mid-20th century establishment of the Institute of Archaeology (IoA) at the University of London to demonstrate the extent to which visualisation is embedded in, and accountable for, the foundation of academic archaeological studies in Britain.  Drawing on results from extensive archival enquiry and interviews, this research stands as an account of institutional development told not through the standard lens of biography or intellectual evolution, but through analysis of the strategic management of visual material culture and graphic performance (i.e., photographs, illustrations, models, display collections, TV, exhibitions, illustrated lectures and conferences).  It traces the early history of the IoA through a series of formative events from the mid-1920s to the end of World War II wherein visual media are mobilised to dramatic effect in the coming-into-being of scholarly archaeology in London, and in the post-war regeneration of British culture.  Particular attention is paid to the entanglement of visualisation in the IoA’s pioneering work on the first archaeological television programmes; the standardisation of archaeological photography; the acquisition and display of the Petrie Palestinian collection; the launching of one-of-a-kind graphic industrial/laboratory units; and the training of the earliest generations of accredited field practitioners.

This project is prompted by a desire to overturn two fundamentally unsustainable standpoints.  Firstly, visual culture tends to be fallaciously constituted in archaeology—and beyond—as a recent phenomenon whose origins stretch back no more than a few decades (conveniently coinciding with the rise of digital graphic production).  However as I argue here, calculated and skilful manipulation of optical media has a deep legacy, implicated in even the most basal levels of the discipline’s intellectual and organisational consolidation.  Secondly, visual representation as a sub-field of enquiry is often relegated to the sidelines of ‘legitimate’ practice—dismissed as ephemeral and unrobust, or irrelevant to the fundamentals of archaeology.  I counter such perspectives by outlining the rich and prescient history of critical graphic studies in the discipline.  I then demonstrate that savvy visualisation can, in fact, breed concrete professional outcomes for archaeologists, providing the infrastructure to develop and refine our methods, the cognitive tools to reconceptualise aspects of the archaeological record, and the commercial capital to sustain and propagate the field.

At once a chronicle of the IoA’s heritage and a testament to the power of visual media, this thesis situates imagery as a forcible actor in the struggle for disciplinary sovereignty and scholarly authority.  Ultimately, it speaks not just of the importance of visualisation to archaeology’s past, but so too of its potential for negotiating our future.

6 thoughts on “The thesis!

  1. Congratulations on submitting!
    I just finished the master’s course in the Archaeology of Buildings at the University of York and have started a PhD program at the University of Texas at San Antonio in the states. I am very interested in your work. My dissertation project at York focused on virtual reconstruction and transparency. I’m sure you are familiar with the London Charter… That was the starting point. I created a virtual visualization and animated sequences of reconstructions of a complex at a site called Xunantunich in Belize. That is where I excavate in the summer.
    Anyway, will your thesis be available on any thesis databases? Also, I see you are active in the Society for Visual Anthropology. I have been trying to get a hold of someone there to inquire whether the projects I create are inclusive to their subject areas. It seems very ethnography and film based. Do you have any insights?
    Oh.. and the VIA conference, I saw on the website that the presentations will be streamed live??? How can I access that?
    Well, congratulations again. Good Luck with your defense.

  2. Thanks so much for getting in touch Leah — it’s great to hear from you. The conference live-streams will be accessible right off of the VIA website ( — just check back on 18 & 19 April. We’re also intending to use twitter feeds to allow people to remotely participate in the question/discussion periods — it would be great to have you contribute. If you email me (here’s the link) we could also discuss other means for you to add to the VIA project, if you’re interested. As for the SVA, you should definitely feel comfortable contributing — it’s open to people from all sub-disciplines, using all forms of visual media. We’re aiming to increase the number of archaeologists (and others!) involved in the SVA, so it would be great to have you participate. Oh – and re: my PhD: I’m defending my thesis in April, so after that it will likely ultimately go online through the University of Southampton library. Hope we can continue to correspond! Thanks again.

  3. Thank you Jesse! Really appreciate this :) Hope all is well – it’s been a long time!! Thinking of you.

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