Seeing, Thinking, Doing: Visualisation as Archaeological Research, Call for Papers, TAG USA

Just a very quick post to advertise the session that the wonderful Cat Cooper and I are organising at the Theoretical Archaeology Group USA conference in Chicago – 9 – 11 May 2013. The Call for Papers is below. We hope you’ll consider contributing to it or forwarding details to your interested colleagues.

Screenshot of TAG USA 2013 conference homepage. Hope you can join us!
Screenshot of TAG USA 2013 conference homepage. Hope you can join us!

We are in the unique situation of being able to stream the session through 4 sites: from Chicago itself, from the University of Victoria (Canada), from the University of Southampton (UK), and from the University of York (UK); so there are various intercontinental options for where to join the session. This means we welcome papers from anyone who is interested in participating remotely from one of these sites.

Deadline for submission of abstracts to Cat & myself is 1 March 2013. Don’t hesitate to contact us with queries.

Seeing, Thinking, Doing: Visualisation as Archaeological Research
Research tends to begin with a series of observations on a site, object, monument or related space as it stands in the present, and leads to the construction of narratives which aim to craft a dialogue between that experience of the real today and the experience of the real in the recent and distant past. Visualisation is a critical methodology in such narrative creation—extending far beyond mere presentation of results into the actual constitution of data and the working and reworking of archaeological ideas. It is a key player, then, in the process of mediating the real. The visual tools we use (both new and old), their interactions with our ways of seeing, and the relationships between these interactions and our experiences on-the-ground — with collaborators, spaces, and other sensory engagements — affect how we do archaeology and conceive of the past. In other words, visual practices are intimately connected to different ways of thinking, and such connections can be (and have long been) exploited to productive effect.

This session seeks to explore such ideas via a session linked across two continents, broadcast online in the form of a series of ten minute papers followed by roundtable discussion. The discussion will be accessible to participants in Chicago, Victoria (Canada), and in the UK at both the University of York and University of Southampton. We welcome short papers introducing different methods of visualisation (including illustration, photography, survey, creative media or computer graphics) or different modes of collaborating visually. Our intention is to nurture a discussion around how vision and imaging impact upon archaeological knowledge creation, shaping our research and the future of our practice.

Many thanks for your interest and attention!

Society of Antiquaries lecture, Thursday

Alan Sorrell Project blog, screenshot by me

Thursday (9 June) marks the culmination of our pilot project on the Alan Sorrell archive, as Prof Matthew Johnson and I present our findings to the fellows of the Society of Antiquaries of London during their regular Thursday night meeting.  I have to admit that I’m anxious about this event especially because of the nature of the Society, with its incredibly rich historical and intellectual legacy.  If you’re keen to know more about the institution, you can browse their website here, or look at Joan Evans’ (1956) impressive tome on its history, or the more recent edited volume Visions of Antiquity (2007), or many other articles published in, for instance, the Society’s own Antiquaries Journal.

We’re speaking for 50 minutes, and I’ve put together a very small exhibition to accompany the talk (of some of the visual material from the archive that we’ve been studying).  The exhibition will be displayed in the Society itself, so unfortunately only Fellows and Fellows’ guests will be able to see it, but some of the imagery is visible on our project blog here, and we’re hopeful that the exhibition will have a life beyond this showing alone.

I feel very fortunate to have been involved in this project, not only in the sense of having an opportunity to navigate the halls of the amazing Burlington House (home of the Society, alongside an array of other learned institutions) and to collaborate with the Society’s hugely kind and supportive staff, but also to meet and work with the Sorrell family–an inspiring group of artists and writers who have warmly welcomed me into their home.  Moreover, I’ve been in touch with interested people and organisations from around the world who have similarly shared their archives and ideas with me.  Obviously I’m keen to keep in contact if anyone has thoughts or materials that might be relevant to this research – thank you!

If you are interested in the nature of our talk, I’ve posted the abstract below.  And perhaps I’ll see you on Thursday evening…


Abstract:  Alan Sorrell is best known today as a ‘reconstruction artist’, employed between the 1930s and 1970s by the Ministry of Works and other bodies to produce reconstructions of ancient monuments and recreations of ancient life.  The archive containing many of his papers, working drawings, correspondence and other material is currently on loan to the Society of Antiquaries of London.  This paper reports on initial researches into this and other archival materials funded through a British Academy Small Grant.  It discusses how the archive throws new light not just on Sorrell’s career and achievements, but on the intellectual and professional development of archaeology as a whole in the mid-20th century.

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.