Category Archives: Art

Painting the Visual Vocabulary of Mesoamerican Archaeology

Adela Breton was apparently “a nuisance” to the men who couldn’t quite figure out what to do with a 50-year-old single woman in Mexico in 1900. Happily, Trowelblazers worked up a short profile on this fantastic artist and scholar and followed up their profile with this tweet:

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I don’t know about you, but when I’m writing something or have other heavy head-work to do, I like to browse through digital museum archives when I need to take a break. Maybe it’s just me. But it paid off big time.

The Breton Collection has 1301 entries, maybe 1/5 of these entries have images online. I can only imagine what else is in their storeroom, because the images that they have online are a glorious feast of archaeological visualization.

Watercolour depicting scene from Chichen Itza, Mexico. Iglesia on left. N.E. corner of building A on the right. Large annex in background. Casa de Monjas. Detached building from the north west. Watercolour depicting scene from Chichen Itza, Mexico. Iglesia on left. N.E. corner of building A on the right. Large annex in background. Casa de Monjas. Detached building from the north west. (Bristol Museums)

Watercolour depicting scene from Chichen Itza, Mexico. Iglesia on left. N.E. corner of building A on the right. Large annex in background. Casa de Monjas. Detached building from the north west. Watercolour depicting scene from Chichen Itza, Mexico. Iglesia on left. N.E. corner of building A on the right. Large annex in background. Casa de Monjas. Detached building from the north west. (Bristol Museums)

Adela Breton is probably one of the most gifted archaeological illustrators that I’ve ever seen.

You see, I was working on a co-authored piece with Holly Wright on analog vs. digital archaeological field illustration, and so going through this collection was even more exciting. Breton didn’t just draw loooovely watercolors of ruins though…her works covered several of the other visual outputs of archaeology.

Map of section of Teuchitlan Hill Fortress, Jalisca, Mexico. Black ink sketch showing mounds halfway up the mountain and the summit.

Map of section of Teuchitlan Hill Fortress, Jalisca, Mexico. Black ink sketch showing mounds halfway up the mountain and the summit. (Bristol Museums)

This hachured plan of an archaeological site would be familiar to any landscape archaeologist, and I love imagining Breton tromping across this mountainside in her Victorian lady-boots, sketchbook in hand, gnawing a pencil, thinking about contours, the relative distances between buildings, and the direction of slope beneath her feet.

Watercolour of two pottery figures. One shows an animal with its back in the form of a bowl. The other is shows two men carrying a canoe like object between them. Costa Rica. (Bristol Museum)

Watercolour of two pottery figures. One shows an animal with its back in the form of a bowl. The other is shows two men carrying a canoe like object between them. Costa Rica. (Bristol Museums)

Breton painted artifacts with such grace that you feel like you can touch their smooth curves. Can you see the chip in the rim of the animal pot?

Watercolour showing three fragments of red pottery with designs incLuding a running dragon-like figure in white, and one fragment of buff pottery with design in brown. National Museum of Mexico City. (Bristol Museums)

Watercolour showing three fragments of red pottery with designs incLuding a running dragon-like figure in white, and one fragment of buff pottery with design in brown. National Museum of Mexico City. (Bristol Museums)

She also drew more pottery in ways that are more familiar to archaeological illustrators, not quite as painterly, a focus on hue and shape. I love that this painting appears to be on the back of stationery from the Palace Hotel.

In addition to the archaeological illustrations, Breton drew ethnographic sketches, geological formations, and…earthquakes?

San Francisco Earthquake of  April 1892, 58 seconds.

San Francisco Earthquake of April 1892, 58 seconds.

Breton put pen to paper during a massive earthquake, even indicating north on the page! The first seismograph wouldn’t even make it to America until 1897. I flagged it up to Karen Holmberg & Elizabeth Angell, both of whom do exciting work on anthropology and natural disasters and can add much more nuance to the analysis of such an incredible visual artifact.

Thank you to Bristol Museums who have kept & digitized this glorious collection! Support your local (and digi-local) museums!

 

Heritage Jam 2015!

The University of York Archaeology Department is hosting the Heritage Jam on 25 September at the King’s Manor. Last year we hacked cemeteries, and this year it will be Museums & Collections.

You can see why I’m usually behind the camera. Tara & Paul did a great job with it, but I can’t actually watch this whole video without running screaming out the room.

Photo by Dun Deagh

Photo of a doorway at King’s Manor by Dun Deagh

BONUS: If you participate in the Heritage Jam, you have the option of sleeping over at the King’s Manor, a fantastic Grade I listed building.

There’s a huge amount of information available on the website, sign up before it is too late:

http://www.heritagejam.org/

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Telepresence, Cyborg Archaeology and the Molecular Age

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Come Around, Lost Or Found, by Kendal Murray

Perhaps the greatest gift of my postdoc has been the crash introduction to the Molecular Age. As a digital archaeologist, I have been immersed in all things technoscience, but it was still a revelation to understand the incredible, diverse detail archaeologists can glean from a single tooth. Finding the interfaces between molecular bioarchaeology and digital methods is incredibly exciting, especially as it allows me to articulate a cyborg archaeology–drawing from Donna Haraway, Elizabeth Grosz and N. Katherine Hayles to understand archaeology, artifacts and bodies.

Found, Hound, Common Ground by Kendal Murray

Found, Hound, Common Ground by Kendal Murray

A theme running throughout my research over the years is telepresence, where you are when you are talking on the phone–not with the person you are speaking to, but not quite in the room you are standing in either.  Telepresence is an incredibly productive metaphor for research on the past, not entirely where you are, not in the past, but somewhere in the middle. These themes within archaeology and science came up in the recent Then Dig themed issue: The Senses and Aesthetics of Archaeological Science.

Telepresence is deeply implicated within the Molecular Age; archaeology must now telescope between vastly divergent scales of analysis, from the traces of aDNA to network analyses of regional and temporal change. Digital technology is the connective tissue, our telephone call to the past. But, it turns out, so is art.

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Discreet, Sweet Deceit by Kendal Murray

Kendal Murray’s artwork immediately struck me–her playfulness of scale, in the artifacts containing lifeworlds, microcosms that surround the artifact forever implicated in the artifact. Growing trees from pollen grains found on shoes. With molecular analyses we can hint at those lost lifeworlds, and with augmented reality we can reanimate those lifeworlds, and tie them to the artifacts.

So, yeah. Welcome to my research.

Art, Archaeology, and Fonts at the Van Eyck

The Jan van Eyck Academie felt otherworldly, a precise, modern shadowbox surrounded by winding medieval streets. Artists wandered in and out of studios, only vaguely curious as to what a gaggle of archaeologists was doing at an art institute in Maastricht, Holland.

I was almost too distracted to notice. I about to give the keynote lecture for the NEARCH meeting, on Archaeology and the Image, and navigating between the two audiences I would be addressing was making me nervous. Very prominent, senior academic archaeologists and cutting-edge contemporary artists would be hearing all about archaeological photography, modernity, and representation. Or my take on it, at least.

Art/Archaeology at the Van Eyck! #holland #nearch

A photo posted by colleenmorgan (@colleenmorgan) on

 

So when I came across this pair of doors leading into studios, I had to laugh. What better description of life as a postdoc? “Super confident, always worried” indeed. Except in my case those two doors would lead to the same office.

Touring the incredible @jve_academie print studio.

A photo posted by colleenmorgan (@colleenmorgan) on

 

Later, we’d go on a tour of the Van Eyck, including the print workshop where artists and scientists print and bind beautiful catalogues and single, masterful pieces. I knew that they specialized in older, analogue printing techniques and yet I couldn’t conceal my delight when the cabinets of heavy typeface were opened. As a child I toured a print shop where they were switching over to digital printing and I was given my initials in letterpress lead block caps, all in slightly different sizes: C.L.M.

 

The print master showing us around had twinkling eyes and a million inks spread across his work shirt–I couldn’t resist asking him about the Van Eyck’s particular, casually stylish font. Apparently it was traced from the remains of the work of the sign painter, Pierre Bonten, who painted the “no parking” signs outside the Institute. It was clever; the font combined an appreciation of the past of the institute, a nod toward craftmanship, and the interplay between analogue and digital forms of expression.

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This artistic, archaeological font is named Bontepike, Here’s a video about the process:

The Happy Accidents of Archaeological Drone Photography

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Admittedly, 80% of the 227 photos are of grass. Blurry, impressionistic, green. The camera was set to time lapse, taking a photo every five seconds, and most people in the Heritage & Play group had a turn. A new person at the controls, and the angry-bee-buzz of the small white drone would signal lift-off.

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We all stood around it, watching it aloft, buzz around, then land. We were amateurs–this is not an effective group shot, but it’s lovely. It’s late autumn in England, the sun hangs low in the sky, prolonging the golden hour and lighting up the still-green fields.

DCIM100GOPRO But who is the author of the photo? It was a time lapse, so was it Neil, who set the camera? Or the “pilot” of the drone? The wind played havoc with the camera gimbal, so the drone propellers show up in some of these photos, like fingers left too close to the lens.

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These are the rejected shots, the extra-archival material that I’m always interested in, the visual archaeological marginalia. Drones, tied to vicious, out-of-the-blue attacks on non-combatants by the United States, are tools of surveillance, of state-crafted terror, and take lovely photos of archaeology in the English countryside. We were happy the rain lifted so we could take better photos; in Pakistan a little boy lamented the death of his 67-year-old grandmother who was killed by a drone strike while picking vegetables, “I no longer love blue skies…In fact, I now prefer gray skies. The drones do not fly when the skies are gray.”

Even unarmed, the drones are used for “weaponized photography“–there are a host of rules about where and when and why you can fly drones in the UK. Perhaps that’s why I find delight in these marginal, miscellaneous photos–they are goofy, non-standard and non-threatening, revealing an imperfect technological surrogacy. They’re accidentally lovely.

Archaeology Hack-a-thon! The Heritage Jam, Cemeteries & Audioscapes

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Alexis and Sam, hacking away!

I wasn’t sure what to expect. Sure, I knew the basic outlines of what a “Jam” should be in the tech/gaming world–everyone comes together to hack on a project together to see what kind of results you can get with very intense focus for a short amount of time–but how would that play out in the world of interpretation and heritage? I just knew that I was excited to finally have a chance to work on something with other visualizers, some of whom I’d known for years. We started out bright and early at 9:00, went through introductions, got an outline of a plan together, then went to York Cemetery to gather primary data…

(Read the rest of the post written by me and Stu Eve at the Day of Archaeology website)

My Name is Oxblood

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Ruskin jar, Black Country Museums.

It hangs there, throbbing heart of ceramic, wildfires under rippling aurora borealis. A rime-frosted pomegranate. A supernova in a jar.

Oxblood, sang de boeuf, lang yao hong, jihong, is the most magnificent and the most difficult of glazes. It is the red red red of heartbeats, misbehaves in kilns, sliding off the shoulders of the pot into a clotted puddle. You must apply it in great gouts of crimson so the copper will reduce and go red instead of green. It is assumed that this discovery was a happy accident, known as early as the Han dynasty (25-220 CE) and rediscovered during the Tang Dynasty (618-907 CE), and perfected during the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644 CE). The technique was lost, rediscovered, and lost time and time again.

The folklore around this particular hue for ceramics is also thickly applied, with varied accounts of a Chinese emperor jailing potters for failing to produce the proper color, a potter so frustrated that he threw himself into the kiln, thus producing the elusive red, and a faithful potter’s daughter was so incensed at her father’s imprisonment that she stepped into the kiln, also with a red result.

Much later, the “father” of French ceramics, Theodore Deck copied furiously from exoticized Egyptian, Islamic, Japanese, and Chinese styles, including the sang de boeuf and incorporated a  flambé glaze, applying it to art deco pottery forms. In England William Howson Taylor of Ruskin Pottery (named after the writer John Ruskin) sought the sang de boeuf as one of the most difficult expressions of pottery as an art form. He guarded the secrets of this glaze carefully, and burned his notes before his death. Bernard Moore is his contemporary, producing similar wares and I wondered if there was a rivalry, but I found nothing.

In 1925, the British Museum received a gift from a “generous Hong Kong donor in the name of Keechong Hong.” This gift included a tall, slender vase, described as a “typical specimen, with faintly crackled glaze and red of cherry tint in the thinner parts, but darkening into oxblood where it has flowed thick on the shoulders and above the base.” This compares well with an earlier gift from Sir Augustus Wollaston Franks, and shows the celadon lip–the delicate, singular green yielding to the more furious red.

Container series, Liu Jianhua, Pace Gallery exhibitions

Container series, 2009, Liu Jianhua, Pace Gallery exhibitions

It’s this contrast between celadon and oxblood that modern potter Liu Jianhua plays with, the red finally filling the vessel, diving up and inside, like it belonged there all along.

So this, this a from a non-ceramicist–a partial, ragged run through the most elusive of colors, one that maddens, demands the most exquisite attention and craft, and is reborn over and over again.

The title of the post refers to My Name is Red, by Orhan Pamuk.