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.

Media Strategy in Archaeology

As I’ve mentioned before, my PhD research centres on the exploitation of visual media in the establishment of the first university departments of archaeology in Britain (circa early-to-mid 20th century).  I’ve spent the last couple of years trolling through dozens of archives around the UK (everywhere from the Garstang Museum of Archaeology at Liverpool University, to the Society of Antiquaries, to the West Sussex Record Office, the BBC archives, and more), examining instances of visual artefacts & performances being manifestly — or tacitly — mobilised in the name of institutionalising the still-fledling archaeological discipline.  My thesis ultimately focuses on such mobilisation in context of the Institute of Archaeology (IoA) at the University of London (incorporated into UCL in the mid-1980s).

IoA 1938
Screenshot of photograph of IoA exhibition flyer from 1938

The example of the IoA is perfect for demonstrating the power of tools like temporary exhibitions, museological displays, TV, photography, and other two- and three-dimensional mediums for securing buy-in (i.e., financial, physical, intellectual, political and emotive support) for the creation and sustenance of university-based archaeology, not to mention the broader discipline overall.

What is important is that, in the case of the IoA, although such media savvy is repeatedly attributed specifically to the aptitude (and ego) of the Institute’s first honorary director, Mortimer Wheeler, there is clear evidence to suggest that it is actually practiced quite independently of Wheeler both at — and before — the establishment of the IoA.  Moreover, my research is making apparent the fact that, indeed, such savvy forms part of a strategic approach to discipline-building, rather than some kind of casual or narcissistic publicity posturing, as is often implied.

Ultimately, what I think is critical about the pursuit of such enquiry is the potential relevance that it has for tactical media exploitation in the present. With this in mind, I’m interested to track down rigorous published or unpublished analyses of current archaeological projects’ publicity & mass media policies. There are various cases from the University of Southampton alone of the very effective application of, e.g., the web, television, radio and other mixed media, for the purpose of both internal and external positioning, but I know of these cases mostly anecdotally.  I would thus very much appreciate reference to detailed analytical assessments of such on-the-ground media strategies — please don’t hesitate to email me!