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!

Çatalhöyük 2010

On the road to Çatalhöyük. Photo by me in August 2009.

Along with the rest of the Southampton team, I’m preparing to depart for the incredible site of Çatalhöyük where we’ll be working for the next few weeks on various visualisation-related projects.

Çatalhöyük is awe-inspiring—both in terms of the archaeology itself and the logistics of the massive fieldwork operation—and, with its 50-year excavation history, it stands as a perfect forum for exploring the construction and evolution of disciplinary visual traditions.  Such exploration has long been nurtured at the site, meaning that we have the advantage of c. 15 years of critical thinking about the subject to draw upon.  This is quite unique, I believe, in the discipline, especially as it has often been pushed forward (or otherwise enabled) by site illustrators themselves (e.g. Swogger 2000).

Tessa Leibhammer (2000, 2001) and, more recently, Colleen Morgan have begun to probe the historical trajectories of illustrative and photographic work at the site, and Colleen has assembled some great databases of Çatalhöyük visual materials to allow others to do the same.  These projects are complemented by a series of other digital, multi-sensory and museological experiments at/on the site (e.g., Ashley 2004, Morgan 2009, Tringham n.d.), and by the current graphic outputs of artists like Kathryn Killackey and Çatalhöyük’s photographer Jason Quinlan.  In tandem with the local communities of the region, and the site’s long-standing community archaeology team, Southampton is now building upon such work.  You can learn more about us on our university website, here, and read about our previous field season in the Çatalhöyük 2009 Archive Report, here.

Immediately following our return from the field, I’ll be off to the EAAs.  I’ll post again in September when I’ll be preparing for the 3rd Visualisation in Archaeology workshop (21-22 Oct), and the start of my work on the Sorrell archive at the Society of Antiquaries.  Bye for now!



Ashley, Michael (2004) An archaeology of vision: Seeing past and present at Çatalhöyük, Turkey. Unpublished PhD thesis, University of California, Berkeley, USA.

Leibhammer, Nessa (2000) Rendering realities. In Towards Reflexive Method in Archaeology: The Example at Çatalhöyük. I. Hodder, ed. Pp. 129-142. Cambridge: McDonald Institute for Archaeological Research.

Leibhammer, Nessa (2001) Rendering ‘realities’: Towards a reflexive understanding of pictographic images from the archaeology site at Çatalhöyük, Turkey. Unpublished MA thesis, University of the Witwatersrand, Johannesburg.

Morgan, Colleen L. (2009) (Re)Building Çatalhöyük: Changing virtual reality in archaeology. Archaeologies: Journal of the World Archaeological Congress 5(3):468-487.

Swogger, John-Gordon (2000) Image and interpretation: The tyranny of representation? In Towards Reflexive Method in Archaeology: The Example at Çatalhöyük. I. Hodder, ed. Pp. 143-152. Cambridge: McDonald Institute for Archaeological Research.

Tringham, Ruth (n.d.) Forgetting and remembering the digital experience and digital data:

Alan Sorrell, (Archaeological) Artist and Illustrator

Prof Matthew Johnson and I have just received the fabulous news that we’ve been granted a Small Award from the British Academy to fund a pilot study of the Alan Sorrell archive.

Sorrell (1904-1974) is an artist and illustrator who, during the mid-20th century, produced defining images of many of Britain’s most renowned archaeological sites (e.g., see Sorrell, M. 1981), and in so doing, arguably shaped the institutional and epistemological dimensions of British archaeology.  With a neo-Romantic sensibility and a career that included employment by the former Ministry of Works, he stands at the junction between a series of potent intellectual concerns in the discipline—among others, between art and archaeology; academic and broader public consumption; discipline and imagination; and the scholarly establishment and governmental agency.

Sorrell’s archive is currently on loan by his family to the Society of Antiquaries of London.  Matthew and I will be studying it over the course of this upcoming fall and winter towards various ends, including the production of a small visual exhibition of work. Sorrell interacted with many archaeologists on and off site, and I would be keen to hear from those who may recollect such interactions.

Will keep you posted!

A screen shot of Alan Sorrell's Falling Tower, reprinted on the front cover of Johnson's 2nd edition of Archaeological Theory: An Introduction.

SORRELL, M. (ed.) 1981. Reconstructing the Past, London: Book Club Associates.