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.

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:

Objects and Images, Visual Ethics, et al.

I’m off to the field in a couple of weeks and will be free (or deprived, depending on your point of view) of extended use of the internet for much of August.  For that reason, I’ll make a couple of posts in relatively quick succession, summing up what’s been happening lately.  First, Katherine Leckie and I have finalised our session at the European Association of Archaeologists conference in September, and we’re really very excited about the interest that it’s generated, and hence the breadth of contributions.  If you happen to be in The Hague, near the Royal Conservatoire on Friday, 3 Sept, from 9.00-12.30, come see us.  We’ve built in plenty of time for discussion over the course of the morning — here’s a note of the topics and people that you can expect to guide the dialogue:

Objects and images in the history of archaeology

9.00-9.10, Introduction
Katherine Leckie, University of Cambridge, UNITED KINGDOM

9.10-9.25, The visual grammar of ruins: between ‘discovery’ and ‘un-concealment’
Fares Moussa, University of Edinburgh, UNITED KINGDOM

9.25-9.40, The eBusingatha Puzzle: a digital restoration of a painted rock shelter
Justine Wintjes, University of the Witwatersrand, SOUTH AFRICA

9.40-9.55, The Logic of Archaeological Science – Some Remarks on Objects and Images and their rule in early concepts of Archaeological Time
Undine Stabrey, University of Paris I/ Bern, SWITZERLAND

9.55-10.10, The historiography of bracteates and the animal style and its impact on current archaeological studies in Scandinavia
Nancy Wicker, University of Mississippi, UNITED STATES

10.10-10.25, Objects and images: Sir John Beazley’s potters and painters
Tyler Jo Smith, University of Virginia, UNITED STATES

10.25-10.40, Discussion

11.10-11.25, Dr. Bawtree’s Collection: Images and Objects from Indian Sepulchral Pits
Catherine Sutton, York University, CANADA

11.25-11.40, A Museum on Paper
Heather Sebire, English Heritage, UNITED KINGDOM

11.40-11.55, Exploiting the visual: Graphic media and academic archaeology in mid-20th century London
Sara Perry, Southampton University, UNITED KINGDOM

11.55-12.10, “Animal, Vegetable, Mineral?” and its Effect on British Archaeology in the 1950s
Pamela Jane Smith, Mcdonald Institute for Archaeological Research, UNITED KINGDOM

12.10-12.30, Discussion

In other good news, Jonathan Marion and I have learned that the article we’ve prepared on visual ethics (see my discussion of the matter here) has been accepted for publication in Visual Anthropology Review.  We’ve got a couple of additions to make before final submission of the paper (due for print in the fall 2010 issue), but we’re keen to see our efforts on the annual visual ethics roundtables at the American Anthropological Association meetings get translated into print.  We’re always interested to learn how others are grappling with such ethical issues, so please do connect with us about recent and related work.

Lastly, as is evident from the content of my blog, I use this forum to comment on my studies and interests, and describe my various activities, but not to emulate the critically-incisive and methodologically-rich blogging archives of other archaeologists and anthropologists.  Among my favourites are Quentin Mackie @ Northwest Coast Archaeology, and Colleen Morgan @ Middle Savagery, both of whom have been recognised by Archaeology Magazine as top bloggers in the field.  Check them out!