What is an Archaeological Photograph?

 Lee Panich

Several of my fellow archaeology graduate students are also skilled photographers, and we’ve gone out on photo-taking expeditions together, usually to places that yield a certain amount of gorgeous decay.  I do not consider myself to be a photographer of any skill–my practice in this regard is just snapping things that I think are interesting–but I find the concept of the archaeological eye and the creation of archaeological media objects fascinating.

Andy Roddick

So what makes a photograph archaeological?  Since we’re trained archaeologists, does this change our photography?  There’s some discussion of professional vision in more formal venues, and my “elder brother” in the program (a past student of my advisor) based his dissertation around this question.  Still, I’m not sure that the question has been answered to my satisfaction.


I’ve asked several of archaeologist-photographers to sit for short video interviews, which I will cut and post on youtube.  I’ll be using a mix of straight-interview and photo elicitation, with a particular focus on their use of flickr in building a community of photography-oriented archaeologists.  None of this is particularly formal, but it’s good practice for my proposed serial video project in the summer.  Anyway, let’s get to some of the questions:

What cameras do you use?
What kind of photos do you take?
How do you choose your subjects?
Do you think your photography is affected by your work in archaeology?
Can you walk me through your practice?
How many photos do you usually take?
How many of these do you upload to flickr?
How do you decide which to upload?

Any other questions I should ask?

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.

12 thoughts on “What is an Archaeological Photograph?”

  1. The first photo actually relates to something I’ve been thinking about, involving cleaning up modern trash in field settings. That can isn’t older than the late ’70s, but in 20 more years it will be a genuine historic-aged artifact. Of course, it can (and should) also be recycled. But it’s really something I’m mulling over during those times when I’m bored in the field.

    I suppose you are making a distinction between “archaeologists who take pictures” and “archaeologist-photographers”. If so, do you feel that is a fair distinction to make? Is there a difference between someone who can take the time and have the “skill” to set up a shot as oppposed to someone who does what they can with the limited time and equipment at their disposal?

  2. I would ask about what aspects of the individual photos they showed you they eliminated by angle, light, etc. (The differance, to say it with Derrida.)

  3. How does looking through the viewfinder change your perspective (not literally)?

    How do you negotiate conflicts between documentation and aesthetics?

    What inspires you to pull out your camera?

    What makes a good picture?

  4. John, I think the question about negotiating conflicts between documentation and aesthetics is a critical one. It’s also a very nice way of boiling down the “archaeologist/photographer” and the “archaeologist who is taking photos” portion of my earlier comment.
    As an example, the photos I just uploaded that I’m using in my thesis are definitely all about documentation (although they’re not really all that great for that either)

    I think it also can lead to the question of:
    What audience are you taking photos for?

  5. I think that latter question is particularly significant as the audience will almost certainly affect the photo that is taken. For example, if I take a photo for myself (perhaps intended as a reminder of something) then chances are it will be different to one taken for use as a plate in an article/report. A photo taken for use in a presentation may want to be really snazzy and interesting, especially if the audience is the public rather than another professional, but a plate needs to be 100% precise with scales and so on.

  6. Colleen,

    Thanks for sharing those photographs. I liked the second one (B & W). Did you click them?

    Re: “Since we’re trained archaeologists, does this change our photography?”
    It’s all got to do with the subject of your photograph, which may or not be archaeological, all the time. For example, an archaeologist interested in Nature Photography will obviously not click photos in a defined manner (just because he/she is an archaeologist). But yes, liking and interest for something, will always drive one to capture moments that are linked to his/she profession.

    Feel free to send in links to your Photographs!

  7. I think that having both anthropological and archaeological experience/tendencies can change the ways that you go around photographing things. I think that anthropology/archaeology can make you look at things a little differently. But then, some very good contemporary photographers have a very archaeological sense to their work.

    Irving Penn’s still lives come to mind. Andreas Gursky. There are tons. Brian Ulrich’s work is very sociological/anthropological:


    I think that photography lends itself very well to archaeology…and the interesting thing is that the photographs themselves, once printed, become material artifacts in and of themselves. It’s a big feedback loop.

    Anyway, as someone who is very interested in the relationship between anthropology, archaeology, and photography, this post is really interesting…

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