Archaeological Photography as Dangerous Supplement

download (2)

Later this week I am presenting a paper in Dan HicksArchaeology and Photography session at the Photography and Anthropology conference at the British Museum. Here’s the abstract for my talk:

Archaeological Photography as Dangerous Supplement

But isn’t a photographer who can’t read his own pictures worth less than an illiterate?” (Walter Benjamin, 1968)

Archaeology has a long, complex, and fascinating entanglement with photography, a relationship that continues into the digital age. To understand the florescence of digital photography in archaeology, we must inhabit an interdisciplinary space, a space that lies between the compound field of visual studies and archaeology but that also attends to issues of representation, authority, and authenticity. Being conversant in visual analysis can help to create more robust visualization strategies in archaeology, but can have unintended consequences. Quantitative and qualitative analyses of both analog and digital archaeological photographs exposes interesting disciplinary shifts and uninterrogated power dynamics in the field. While digital photography is changing the way that archaeologists are thinking about and doing archaeology, it also reveals the complexity of the relationships present on an archaeological project, in the local community and online. In this, photography can act as a dangerous supplement for archaeology, a Derridean concept W.J.T. Mitchell ascribed to disrupting the cohesion of traditionally defined disciplines.

In this paper I will discuss the process of creating a theory-laden practice of archaeological photography, using the photographic record from the sites of Çatalhöyük in Turkey and Tall Dhiban in Jordan. Through this record I will investigate photography and visualization as a particularly productive instance of the dangerous supplement. Finally, I will explore the implications of merging this theory-laden practice with emancipatory strategies to achieve a more inclusive, reflexive archaeological praxis.

Broken Houses by Ofra Lapid


If I created a venn diagram of my interests, these photographs from Ofra Lapid would be a beautiful fit for the intersection of site depositional processes (ruined houses), dioramas, and photography. While these are more akin to papercraft than true dioramas, I love that they reference digitality–when I create a 3D reconstruction of a structure, I take photos such as these to create skins or textures for the buildings. This is obviously one step further, the creation of a 3D structure that is then printed out and reassembled as a small model.


I’d love to make papercraft models of some of the buildings that I have recreated, but most of the software is PC-only. I could work around it, but it is definitely in the “TO DO…LATER” category.



Special Delivery – Endless Canvas’ Huge Warehouse Graffiti Show

SWAMPY – from

I’ve been more peripatetic than usual lately; we subletted our apartment in anticipation of a visa that was a month late in coming so I’ve been housesitting all over the East Bay. I’ve stayed in four different places, all inhabited by archaeologists–I’ve started making jokes about how I’m studying their settlement patterns. I thought about drawing plans of the layouts of the houses, but then felt like it would be an invasion of privacy–so what kind of implications does that have for archaeological practice?

Special Delivery – by

Anyway, last Saturday night I took the bus down from my latest domicile in Richmond to check out Endless Canvas’ unbelievable “Sistine Chapel” of graffiti art in a warehouse in West Berkeley. It was held in the former Flint Ink building, a warehouse that has been vacant since 1999. When I walked up to the warehouse I was stunned to see a huge line full of families along with the requisite cool kids. The three floors of the warehouse were lit with industrial spot lights and there were multiple DJ setups, infusing the concrete with thudding hip hop and techno. The building was absolutely covered and I walked through the warehouse several times, up stairs, looking down elevator shafts and out onto the nearby train tracks.

There were several gargantuan pieces by my favorite Bay Area artists–GATS, SWAMPY, Deadeyes along with a few I didn’t recognize. I didn’t have my DSLR, so I took a few shots with my iphone, but I felt that it was mostly unnecessary–so many people were shooting that you could probably reconstruct the entire installation from images on the web. Besides, I’m not sure I could really add to the gorgeous documentation:

Devote, by Endless Canvas

Along with the photographs are a series of videos that show the intense connection to place that graffiti artists have and how they express this through their art. The videos also features a “buffer,” a guy that goes around and paints over the graffiti art and so is deeply familiar with all of the different artists.

When I walk through Oakland the graffiti resonates so strongly with my experience of the city. New pieces, old pieces, new artists, artists referencing each other–it’s an intense dialog with place that can be both intimate, you won’t see certain pieces or stickers unless you walk the street and grandiose, such as the huge pieces that welcome you back to Oakland after you go under the Bay in the BART. Graffiti in Oakland is a passionate expression of defiance and home and I feel deeply lucky that I managed to be around for its effloresce.

Spanish Fresco “Restoration” – Why is it funny?

The conservators saw it first. Over the years I’ve been lucky to work on archaeological projects with conservation teams on site–they pick up the pieces when we reveal something that is too delicate or too sensitive for archaeologists to move without risk of further damaging the object. They conserve paintings, wood, metal, pottery, bone, and can fix your site flip-flops if they snap. They have tiny tools and lots of glue–they’re our miracle workers.

One of them will be called in to meticulously scrape off the handiwork of this elderly parishioner, spending countless hours removing flecks of the offending paint. So, yeah, they saw this and cringed. Good luck to the conservator that has to tackle this one. Oof.

The second person referencing this link thought it was hilarious. I admit, when I clicked on the link and saw the photo, I laughed too, and then shook my head. It was reported on Boing Boing as “Fresco Restored” and the comments section is split: about a third of the commenters are horrified, with one stating that “I feel like absolutely everyone would be better off if news of this hadn’t spread very far. I know I’m not better off for knowing.” The majority think that the “restoration” is hilarious.

Is it the rendition of a bizarre Jesus with his black eyes and strange tongue that is funny? Or that an elderly lady did it? I am not arguing that it isn’t funny, I was laughing too, but why? A recent story on NPR described anthropologist Robert Lynch who studies humor but who also does stand-up comedy. Roughly, “you laugh when a joke resonates with your inner values and beliefs.” The “restoration” struck a chord with some of us. I’m not sure what this chord was–the destruction of cultural heritage usually doesn’t elicit a chuckle. I think this reaction calls into question what we think is cultural heritage and what is the appropriate treatment of such.

Finally, I was wondering if the conservators needed to be called in at all. From what little I know about it, the “restoration” was an act of devotion; the restored Jesus is a very personal Jesus, with bare reference to the original. If it offends, it might be easier to primer over the whole thing, project an image of the original at the right scale, and then repaint it entirely. They were planning to repair and repaint the painting anyway, perhaps we should leave this lady’s Jesus as part of the palimpsest of devotion.

The Unfamiliar: Archaeology and the Uncertain Edge

Last winter I submitted an article to the Anthropology Graduate student journal at the University of Edinburgh, The Unfamiliar, to be included in their second issue. The print version is already out and I look forward to the online version. I chose to write about drawing conventions in MoLAS archaeology, particularly the uncertain edge. It caused particular problems as I submitted gifs to illustrate the process, not realizing that there would be a print version, as films were also solicited. So I had to re-send stills from the gifs for the print publication…funny stuff, digital archaeology.

Anyway, here is the article. It appeared in The Unfamiliar V2(1) 2012:

Archaeology and the Uncertain Edge

The author, drawing a multi-context plan in the field, 2012. Photograph by Ruth Hatfield.

Until this point the line had been steady, confident, true. The sandy, shelly deposit curved left, then right, was truncated by a later fire pit, and then continued west-ward and my pencil recorded all of the contours in a perfect 1:20 centimeter representation. But then the deposit lost its hard, defining edge, feathering out, getting mixed and lost in an interface with the underlying dirt. Where did the sandy shelly deposit stop? Where did the layer beneath it begin? My pencil hesitated, then drew a series of quick zig-zags, reminiscent of a line of heartbeats on a heart monitor from a dramatic TV scene, arcing around my deposit. Upon excavating the deposit, I may go back to the drawing, erase the zig-zags and replace them with a single, smooth line. But for now, the edge was ambiguous, open for interpretation, and so I used the drawing convention of a zig-zag, indicating an uncertain edge.

As Tim Ingold (2011:177) notes, archaeology is one of the few specialist disciplines where drawing is still valued as part of our daily practice, as as a way to record, understand and engage with the materials of the past. We represent skeletons, landscapes, walls, houses, pottery, rocks, and stratigraphic sections in technical, measured to scale drawings. While some of the illustrations end up in our lectures in publications, the majority of these drawings are by archaeologists, for archaeologists, and remain in our grey literature. Still, drawing is a vital part of the most important skill in archaeology—learning how to see, or what Charles Goodwin (1994) calls “professional vision.”

By drawing we intimately inspect our subject, gaining knowledge that transcends taking a photograph or even a laser scan of the same feature. Learning how to discern the stratigraphic relationships in archaeology is a difficult task and “drawing a definite line around something rests on reserves of professional confidence and interpretative skill” (Wickstead 2008:14).  To add to the complexity, there are very few universally agreed-upon drawing conventions. I was trained in both Americanist and British styles of excavation and the accompanying drawing conventions wildly differ across the Atlantic.  Americanist archaeologists draw the sections of their meter-squares with little tufts of grass on the top, English archaeologists use hachures to indicate slope across their wide-open trenches. While American-style archaeological technical drawing has few conventions, English archaeologists have standardized lines and rugged tracing paper called permatrace so that they can overlay the drawings of the deposits in stratigraphic order.  These differences aside, learning to see and draw archaeological deposits remains at the core of our profession.

This most important skill, that of learning to see and describe archaeological deposits is almost impossible to teach within the confines of a classroom. We rely on field schools to impart this information, taking students to archaeological excavations so they can interact with the archaeology. Sometimes while training students we inscribe the ground with our trowels, teaching them how to see subtle differences in color or texture. While working in red dirt with colorblind archaeologists in Texas I had to use sound to establish the difference between solid ground and a posthole, tap-tap-tapping my way across the ground with the butt of my trowel until there was a slight change in tenor. Tap-tap-tap-thud-thud-tap-tap-tap, there was the hole that the Caddo dug for the center post of their structures. Still, there are times that we are uncertain, even after many years of experience. During these times the solid line jolts back to life, a jagged heartbeat of subjectivity in a profession that still struggles for objectivity even after postmodernity.

This small selection of photographs and gifs that I have taken during my time as a field archaeologist in Qatar attempt to demonstrate the concept of the uncertain edge in archaeology. Perhaps as a parallel to teaching field archaeology in a classroom, demonstrating the uncertain edge through photography might be an impossible task; therefore I have chosen to augment a selection of the photographs, sometimes directly inscribing them with the Museum of London Archaeological Service drawing conventions. In this I hope to convey insight into the craft of archaeology and to the interpretive process during excavation.

At times we directly inscribe the dirt in order to teach students, or even to remind ourselves. This is not favored amongst many, and certainly I do not do it before I take photographs of the deposit. I scored this deposit to show my workmen where to begin digging. Photograph by Colleen Morgan.

Click on the gif below to see it animated.

Some features on archaeological excavations seem obvious, even when the features are intercut. There are four fire pits here; in the single context methodology we record the cut of the fire pit and the fill of the fire pit as two separate events. Photograph by Colleen Morgan.

(Click on the following gif to view a higher quality version…that is actually animated.)

Larger surfaces can be more ambiguous; the sunlight, differential drying, and relative cleanliness can all make deposits look very similar or radically different. I have indicated the uncertain edges of this deposit, though I have since excavated the area and found more certain edges. In this gif the dot-dash-dot lines indicate the limit of excavation and the double dot-dash-double dot lines indicate truncation lines. In single context drawing, each of these cuts and deposits are drawn on individual sheets of permatrace, then overlain to replicate the stratigraphy of the site. Photograph by Colleen Morgan.

References cited:

Ingold, Tim. 2011. Being alive: essays on movement, knowledge and description. London: Routledge.

Goodwin, Charles. 1994. “Professional Vision”. American Anthropologist. 96 (3).

Wickstead, Helen. 2008. “Drawing Archaeology,” In Drawing – the purpose, ed. Duff, Leo, and Phil Sawdon. Bristol: Intellect Books. 13-29.

Isometric Drawing in Archaeology

The Victoria and Albert museum in London was not of particular interest when I read the description. It sounded like lots of blingin’ artifacts without the context to make them interesting. But the Natural History Museum looked like a Easter weekend riot might break out at any time, and we still had a couple of hours to kill before meeting up with other Catalhoyukians for a reunion, so the V&A it was. We wandered through the Middle East exhibit without much enthusiasm, then headed up to the 6th floor ceramics hall. (Which was pretty nice, and had a big exhibit on how ceramics have been decorated and constructed throughout time.) On our way up we passed by the architecture room and I saw the beauty above–a 12′ x 8′ isometric drawing of St. Paul’s cathedral.

An isometric drawing (technically an isometric projection) is a way to show three-dimensional objects in two dimensions. If you’ve ever drawn a cube, you’ve done an isometric drawing. They’re useful for architects who want to depict building interiors and exteriors together and for archaeologists who want to show stratigraphic relationships between building components. Archaeological isometric drawings can be either measured to scale or sketched with measurements added to the drawing.

Isometric sketch by Michael House

I learned how to sketch isometric drawings of archaeology from my dear friend Michael House, one of the most gifted archaeologists I’ve ever had the pleasure of working with. This is one of his sketches that I happened to see on his desk and took a quick snapshot. In it you can see the relationship of a threshold to the surrounding wall and to the internal render on the wall. As you can see, the sketch is just that–it is a quick representation of the relationships of the various elements of the archaeology to each other. The walls are not truly as square as the drawing would imply, and the roughness of the stones is captured by their irregularity in the drawing, but are not drawn to show texture.

Isometric drawings are becoming rare in archaeology. It is much easier to reconstruct a building using a program like Sketchup, then manipulate the perspective to show the various elements of the building. Though isometric drawings are a well-honed skill for archaeological illustrators, I don’t know many archaeologists who sketch isometric drawings in the field, and I’m afraid it is becoming a lost art.

When I leaned in to look at the drawing of St. Paul’s, I could see all the traces of pencil left after the drawing was inked. You can also see a couple of mistakes, such as in the column on the left. But I was happiest to see the depiction of the stratigraphy beneath St. Paul’s–just a little archaeology sneaking in with all the gorgeous architectural detail. It is not likely to be correct, as the isometric drawing shows a fictitious section through the building, but it was nice to see that the architect was aware that there was history below even a building as ancient and as storied as St. Paul’s.


Every Archaeological Site Needs a Cartoonist.

That’s my conclusion after checking out My Cartoon Version of Reality, Conor McHale’s brilliant blog. He had a lovely series on the Meeting House Square Excavations, showing some behind-the-scenes sketches, such as this view from the window of a digger (American archaeologists, read backhoe):

If his sketches are this good, I’d love to see his context plans!

Elevating – Drawings from Today

Drawing is probably my favorite thing to do in archaeology, but I try not to tell anyone that, because you end up drawing all of the time for the people who don’t like doing it.

I find it a peaceful exercise, one of the times when I can be truly alone on an archaeological site. I usually wear headphones and listen to music, as it allows me to focus–I can draw about twice as fast.

Some archaeologists have switched to photogrammetry and automatic drawing programs, but I find that there is little point in it. Drawing something is the only way that you truly see something. It can be inaccurate, sure–the point of view of the archaeologist can change the shape of rocks radically.

Even when making scaled drawings, each archaeologist has a separate style. Some depict the rock faces, or try to show texture. I try to see them as silhouettes, shapes that relate to each other. That, and I have a heavy hand–my lines are dark, even using a 6H pencil.

I usually draw relatively “freehand.” I have a couple of tape measures that I reference once in a while, but once you draw enough rock walls, you can see how they fit together, how the coursing works, which direction the wall was built in. The worst is planning tumble, or burnt rock middens.

Today I drew a 5m long, 1:10 elevation depicting the relationship of four walls. They are each distinctive, built with different kinds of stone, and two of the walls were joined by a long, diagonal seam. It took me about 3 hours, start to finish, with interruptions. It isn’t my best, or most favorite drawing, but I found it satisfactory. It was a good day.

What do gifs want?

W.J.T. Mitchell’s classic book asks, What do pictures want? That is, what is it exactly that visuals do and how do they do it? Since this relatively early salvo into the thriving interdisciplinary field of visual studies there have been several qualitative and/or quantitative studies of photographs (see Sarah Pink, Gillian Rose, Kress and van Leeuwen, the list goes on) yet similar analyses on movies have remained elusive. Add music and dialogue and movement and your content analysis is suddenly many many thousands of pages long and ten years in the making.

Yet out of the flashy html mess of the early world wide web comes a digital object that severely erodes the boundary between still photographs and movies–the gif. (Here’s a nice little history of the gif) Even if you don’t remember the rotating skulls and bursting fireballs of the mid-1990s, the animated punctum of Jamie Beck’s photography probably caught your attention:

Beck calls these gifs cinemagraphs, and they resist classification as photographs or as movies, but play with elements of both. The constant loop of the movement in a gif is a fantastic synesthetic citation of digital music.

On the less “high-art” side of the spectrum is the admittedly low-brow joke gifs, a joke on a digital gum wrapper, the low rez and jagged movement unconsciously exuding a Lumiere brothers quality. My favorite being, of course, Animals Being Dicks.

They tell the shortest story, the briefest moment of time, soundlessly and then on loop. The first viewing is confusing, surprising, then we watch the clip with full knowledge on the second run through, anticipating the joke, and then a third, relishing the details we missed on the first or second pass.

I’ve been experimenting a little with the very short video form, not yet gifs, but similar:

There are a couple of programs that you can use to apply hipstamatic-like filters to your videos that are fun to play with, but you can also edit it on youtube using their tools. Obviously I haven’t fully explored the medium, but it is a good change for me from the hyper-focus on photography. The tiny film/gif pushes at the boundaries between video and photography, with occasionally delightful results.

Assembling Archaeology in Sheffield

I immediately regretted my decision to walk to the University of Sheffield. My hair whipped around my eyes and mouth and I had to keep dodging blowing garbage. The hurricane that had ripped up the east coast of the United States was making its presence known on the other side of the Atlantic. This was represented on the news by what looked like a giant invasion of white ghosts in a psychedelic, swirling arc across Ireland and Northern England. (Learning about how the English talk about the weather has been an education on its own–who’d’ve known that the forecast could be “white cloud,” “gray cloud,” or simply “dull.”)

I ran into the conference room for the Assembling Archaeology seminar late and windswept, but quickly found a seat at the back and settled in to hear Helen Wickstead speak about art and archaeology. She memorably spoke about some of the annoying aspects of conducting this “cross-disciplinary” research, in short, that the only relevant art within archaeology is illustration and depiction of antiquities; that art/archaeology is “self expression” and not research; most research of art/archaeology looks mostly at the boundaries between the two; finally, that art is primarily used to communicate with the public. I think it was this last point that riled up a certain Twittering audience member, but I think it was just a misunderstanding of terms and positioning.

Next, Bill Bevan and Bob Johnston presented separately the fantastic photographic work that Bill Bevan was doing as the Leverhulme visiting artist at the University of Bristol. His residency and the work that he produced definitively proved the value of such a program. It would have been amazing to be able to have an artist in residence in anthropology at UC Berkeley to collaborate with on projects. I asked my first annoying question–did he actually do any kind of content or semiotic analysis of the assemblage of photos that he had created during his time as an artist in residence. Sadly he had not. I’m not sure how useful it would be to analyze your own photos, but I found the big analysis of the photos taken over the years at Catalhoyuk extremely informative to my own photo practices. I really should publish that sometime. I also wanted to ask him nerd questions about his camera, editing process and whether or not he uses Creative Commons–judging by the image protection set up on his webpage, I’d guess not. I just wanted to look at your metadata! And maybe link to an image! Honest.

Paul Evans is another Leverhulme artist in residence, creating and interacting with bioarchaeology, in particular, bones that have been modified in some way. I highly recommend his blog, Osteography. His work ranges from very intense and gripping:

Third Eye by Paul Evans

to a bit more lighthearted:

Astragoloi Wallpaper by Paul Evans

I was happy to see my friend Aaron Watson again, who has a finished version of his Stones From The Sky film, which combines digital photographs, video, and 3D animation seamlessly into a fantastic meditation on the stone axes and quarries of the Lake District.

Cursus tag by Mark Antsee

Probably the most entertaining presentation of the day was Mark Antsee speaking about his work reflecting on the Stonehenge Cursus. He began by tagging the landscape (in non-permanent charcoals and chalk) with a line representation of the Cursus, then, influenced by the deep ties that the region has with the military, elaborated on this work by making flags and cow trough sarcophagi around the landscape.

Cursus flag by Mark Antsee

I particularly liked that he framed his work as a provocation, a response to the provocation of the act of archaeology, particularly the act of digging in the landscape. Mark was able to reframe this monument, add a sense of disorientation to this well-known (though often overshadowed by its neighbor Stonehenge) monument. I loved that he managed this all while staying within the bounds of what you can feasibly do at historic monuments–I’ve often struggled with methods of inscribing landscape or indicating that there was interpretive material available without getting the park rangers and such angry with me. Anyway, he also made sure all of the seminar participants were similarly inscribed: My very own Cursus Awareness bracelet!

Segsbury Project by Simon Callery

Simon Callery presented the work he had done a decade ago wherein he lay down plaster directly on top of the excavated chalk ditches, creating a curvy, chalk-embedded representation of the site surface. He spoke about the long collaboration he had with the University of Oxford archaeologists and spoke at length about the true nature of this collaboration. He felt it was key that neither artists nor archaeologists “leaned” on the other’s work but rather explored the question, “what is it about questions that we ask do we share?” That is, what are archaeologists and artists interested in and how can we use that shared interest as a collaborative space.

ADDED – (sorry, I skipped a page in my notes)

Antonia Thomas presented another perspective as an archaeologist who made an incursion into an art gallery, presenting art and artifacts associated with excavations in Orkney. She took up residence in the art gallery, much like the artists who come and live with archaeologists in the field, and transformed that space into a more ambiguous blend of art and archaeology. Her reaction to the space of an art gallery is probably the same one I would have had–she recorded it in 1:20 on a sheet of permatrace. I probably would have phased it as well, or started peeling off the layers of paint in one of the corners to understand past installations.

The last presenter was Angela Piccini who showed her video work as she spoke about her experimental video work and using the camera as part of her research process. She is interested in working against the aesthetics of film and narrative to find the “anti-beauty” in place. I asked her how it was to work against narrative when digital editing tools enforce placing video clips on a timeline, etc. It was nice to be able to talk to another archaeologist who deals in film, and really made me want to delve into one of the several projects that I don’t have time for right now.

In all it was a good experience, especially in that I was able to see some folks that I’ve met over the years and check out the progression of their work in particular and of the dialog surrounding art and archaeology in general. I’m happy that we seem to be moving on from the same discussions (as noted by Wickstead) into a more productive space. I came away both inspired and motivated to continue my work in the art/archaeology/digital realm. One quick criticism is that while most of the speakers had a defined online presence, much of their work was either hard to find or annoying/hard to link. It is tempting to just leave these people and works out of the discussion.

Anyway, as Angela Piccini said, (and I paraphrase) “I hope that the relationship between art and archaeology continues in its grubby way, afraid of neither the banal nor the sublime.”

%d bloggers like this: