A Visual Lexicon for Archaeology

I think a lot about the visual representation of archaeology, particularly through digital technology and the internet. In 2016 I published an Open Access article in Internet Archaeology that discusses some of the ways that digital photography has either perpetuated visual tropes in archaeology, or has caused ruptures. For example, how the LCD screen on the back of DSLRs allowed some co-construction and sharing of photographs on site, particularly between people with differing levels of power on site, director vs fieldworker, for example. I’ve also posted about shooting “stock photos” for reuse, and I’d love to work to improve representation in stock photography for archaeology, as it’s pretty dire, if you can’t tell:

Stock photo of “adventurer archaeologist” that comes up in the first page of results on google image search.

There is more to be written about digital photography in archaeology, and I have been encouraging some students to engage with the topic over the years, but without too much success. A stand-out is Luke Snell’s undergraduate dissertation which looked at how students were using cellphones on site to curate their own representations of their experiences. I also have some cellphone work in press, but I think there are some interesting, broader issues at play.

Based on my entirely personal (though thoroughly embedded) experience, there was a rapid upskilling in photographic practice in archaeology as DSLRs became more ubiquitous on site, from around 2005 – 2015 or so. There are a wealth of very high-quality photographs from that time, but also an abundance of experimental photography. People were genuinely trying to do something different with archaeological photography. While file sizes and such were always a problem with archival, people shared a lot of this photography via Flickr, and there were thousands of photographs curated by archaeologists.

I’d curate photographs occasionally and post them. For example, this update from 2008 had an overhead shot, a digger in front of a rack of clothes, a photo of a complex drawing, and excavations at (where else?) Stonehenge. Even in 2014 I was complaining about the growing obsolescence of Flickr. Still, I have continually found photographs that I’ve released and licensed CC-BY in various places. Happily, many of my photographs have been placed on Wikimedia for reuse as well. There’s over 800,000 entries for “archaeology” on Wikimedia, but they’re not always deeply useful, or well documented. I also have not heard of many archaeologists depositing their photographs there, though some seem to be, for example I found this one from ANU’s Dougald O’Reilly:

Archaeologists drawing a burial at the Phum Lovea site as part of the Paddy to Pura Archaeological Project.

But there is no sense of curation, continuity, or broader organization in Wikimedia. There is also the problem that the Archaeology Data Service has run up against-data protection. People need to give permission for their photographs to be displayed and reused. This is expected these days, of course, but photographs that were taken before data protection cannot be shared or displayed, rendering many archaeological archives without the faces of the people responsible for the work.

So where is the new archaeological photography archive? Where can we retrieve photographs of archaeologists or archaeological sites for our reuse for teaching and making media? And can we make one that is more diverse, personal, exciting, experimental? And would or should these archives feed into neural networks such as Dall E, saving us from the beige-hat working shots that it uses to evoke archaeology?

Dall E representation of “Digital Knowledge Production in Archaeology”

There is another problem, one that has persisted throughout the adoption of digital photography in archaeology, but seems to be getting worse throughout the years: cellphone photography. High-quality DSLR photography is being outmoded in favor of quick snaps taken with your cellphone. The rapid upskilling in photography seems to be accompanied with a rapid deskilling. Or perhaps a reskilling in cellphone photography.

I completely understand–my very expensive smartphone has a great camera, so why should I lug around a heavy DSLR and a sack of lenses? If everyone uses cellphones why do I keep teaching students how to use DSLRs? I used to joke that all the best site photos were on the Facebook pages of the students, but now that the students no longer have Facebook pages, they’ve become even more submerged in black-boxed devices, never to be seen by other archaeologists. How many of your quick cellphone shots end up in the archive? Is it enough to create the one photo for social media, a few for the report, and forget about the rest?

Finally, a lot of the usual digital photography is now taken in service to photogrammetry, or eschewed entirely for other forms of digital imagery. Does the proliferation of other digital gadgetry push the DSLR out of our hands? Why, when archaeological photography is perhaps easier to create and share than it ever has been, has it dropped so far from view? Where are all the archaeological photos?

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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