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.

2011 VIA International Conference

The Call for Paper and Posters for the 2011 Visualisation in Archaeology International Conference has finally gone live on the conference website — the deadline for submissions is 28 February 2011.  There are some fantastic sessions being hosted by scholars and practitioners from around the world, addressing issues that span disciplinary boundaries.  Plus we have a couple of general sessions for those whose interests may not fall directly into one of the existing topics.  In terms of the latter, we are particularly keen to have contributors experiment with their presentations (e.g., short 5-minute, or remote live-streamed talks).  Here are a few links…

Engaging with the Virtual World? Approaches to Using Computer Games to Represent Heritage. Chairs: Keith Challis & Matthew Smith.

Images in Action: Visualisations as Tools and Arguments in Archaeological Research. Chair: Simon James.

Old Flames: The Visualisation of Light and Colour in Archaeological (Re)Construction. Chairs: Gareth Beale, Nessa Leibhammer, Constantinos Papadopoulos.

Outlining the Past – Archaeology and the Fine Arts. Chair: Sam Smiles.

Plurality of Media: Different Visual Techniques and their Functions. Chair: Stefanie Klamm.

Antiquaries and Artists: Recording Britain’s Past Before 1820. Chair: Bernard Nurse.

General Sessions. Chairs: Various.

The conference will be live-streamed and contributions should be adaptable for publication.  Please email me if you have any questions!

Also, just a note that we hosted the annual Histories of Archaeology Research Network conference on 15 January at the University of Cambridge.  Jodi Reeves Flores (U Exeter) did a fantastic job in organising the event with the incredible support of Pamela Jane Smith.  You can read more about the conference here.