Tag Archives: drawing

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. I’ll link to the online version when it comes through.

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.

 

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.

Archaeology in Action – Mixed Media Edition

The weather has turned chilly and I have returned to one of my favorite forms of structured procrastination–maintaining the Archaeology in Action group on Flickr.  Again, I had to weed out various travel photos, museum shots, and landscapes without explanation, but found a whole bunch of really good images that I had to share.

Church Window Uncovered

This is the photo that inspired the post.  Buzz Hoffman has been documenting the Hamline Methodist Church project and snapped this lovely image of a stained glass window from a church that was destroyed by fire in 1925. He’s been blogging about it at Old Dirt – New Thoughts.

Hey look, a rock!

My good friend John is finally back out in the field in Texas, digging squares and blogging about it.

Recording Rock Art

Here is an archaeologist recording rock art in the desert in Morocco.  I love how the recording of rock art emulates the act of creating rock art.

Crucifixión.

And while we’re on the subject of art, this reconstruction really knocked me out.  I love the layers of interpretive material and illustration as work in progress. Easily one of the most interesting reconstructions I’ve ever seen.

A "pottery" of amphora

Still, I love the sketchy reconstructions that Alistair uploads to his Flickr stream. Images like this make me wish that I didn’t spend so much time noodling behind a computer screen and sketched a bit more.