I’ve been intrigued by the narrative potential of GIFs for archaeological explanation and outreach for a while; in 2011 I played on Mitchell’s famous article on photography in asking, What do GIFs want? My early attempts were pretty much just short videos, but I developed them into a small publication in 2012 for a graduate journal called The Unfamiliar, wherein I explored archaeological illustration conventions, particularly the Uncertain Edge. I left them alone for a while, even though I explored their utility within my dissertation as polyvalent media/digital readymades in my dissertation.
Animated GIFs are uncommonly well suited for representing archaeology. A shudder-start, temporally ambiguous fragment of sequential media, the animated GIF (just GIFs, hereafter) occupies the margins of formal discourse, visually annotating everyday life on the Internet. The creation of a GIF – compiling frames of action into a sequence – draws an easy parallel with the mode of atomizing that characterises excavation, treating archaeological deposits as discrete entities and their subsequent reassembly into a stratigraphic sequence (Morgan 2012; Morgan and Wright in press).
Complex cultural expression is distilled into a brief gesture, the digital equivalent of an archaeological trace. Yet GIFs are fleetingly rare in archaeological representations, with only a handful of examples since the introduction of the media format in 1989. In this GIF essay (modelled on a photo essay), we briefly review the history of the animated GIF with particular attention to archaeological GIFs, discuss their utility in representing archaeological remains and narratives, and argue for a more creative integration of visual media into archaeological practice.
The “GIF essay” was co-authored with Dr. Nela Scholma-Mason, who was a PhD student at the time. I was inspired by her fantastic use of GIFs to communicate how the Norse would have viewed the prehistoric landscape of Orkney. Nela led a Heritage & Play workshop on how to use GIFs and I immediately wanted to co-author a paper with her on the topic. I mean, check out this incredibly striking GIF:
The article was part of a series invited by Gareth Beale and Paul Reilly on Digital Creativity in Archaeology and we are honored that our article is in such good company! Check out the Open Access paper in Internet Archaeology and let me know what you think:
Morgan, C. and Scholma-Mason, N. 2017 Animated GIFs as Expressive Visual Narratives and Expository Devices in Archaeology, Internet Archaeology 44. https://doi.org/10.11141/ia.44.11
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:
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.
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.)
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.
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.