Metaphorical Archaeology

Here’s the first two paragraphs of a thirty page paper I dropped off yesterday:

Archaeology and photography, both considered projects and products of modernity, have extensively exchanged metaphorical weight throughout their complimentary histories.  As early as 1839, Dominique François Jean Arago enthusiastically embraced photography as a means to accurately “copy the millions of hieroglyphics which cover even the exterior of the great monuments of Thebes, Memphis, Karnak” in a way that would “excel the woks of the most accomplished painters, in fidelity of detail and true reproduction of the local atmosphere” (Peabody Museum of Archaeology and Ethnology., et al. 1986:73).  Fox Talbot, the inventor of the ‘Calotype’ process in 1841, was an antiquarian and took photographs of manuscripts, engravings, and busts (Dorrell 1989).  While archaeologists have considered photography as an attractive and theoretically transparent way to quickly document sites and artifacts, critics and theorists of photography have drawn on archaeological metaphors to describe and understand photographs.

In describing Niepce’s first photograph, Clarke declares it “not so much an image as an archaeological fragment” due to poor quality and representation (1997:12).  Sontag spells out this relationship, stating that “photographs are, of course, artifacts” (1977:69).  They “turn the past into a consumable object” (68), by “slicing out this moment and freezing it” (15), “giv(ing) people an imaginary possession of a past that is unreal” (9).  Berger expands on Sontag, acknowledging that “photographs are relics of the past, traces of what has happened (1980:61), but champions creating an “alternative photography” wherein photographs are contextualized, situated through social and political memory.  Barthes further obscures the relationship between the photograph and the ‘reality’ of the past by stating that “the reading of the photograph is thus always historical” (1977:28).  While the linkage between artifact and past meaning has been problematized extensively in archaeology, its apparently objective use of photography as a tool to represent scientific process has only recently been called into question.  Shanks (1997) destabilizes the use of photographs as “transparent windows”, situating ‘photowork’ within a specific framework of cultural production within archaeology.

I’ll post the rest as a pdf after I’ve, um, read it.  Now, on to finish the big lit review I have due to my advisor!

Author: colleenmorgan

Dr. Colleen Morgan (ORCID 0000-0001-6907-5535) is the Lecturer in Digital Archaeology and Heritage in the Department of Archaeology at the University of York. She conducts research on digital media and archaeology, with a special focus on embodiment, avatars, genetics and bioarchaeology. She is interested in building archaeological narratives with emerging technology, including photography, video, mobile and locative devices. Through archaeological making she explores past lifeways and our current understanding of heritage, especially regarding issues of authority, authenticity, and identity.

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