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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
This artistic, archaeological font is named Bontepike, Here’s a video about the process:
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?
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:
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.
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.
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:
to a bit more lighthearted:
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.
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.
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!
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.”
Electronically leafing through archaeological marginalia is probably an overly-obvious habit of mine, and occasionally I’ll find fascinating bits that I’ll throw up on my tumblr blog, to put aside for later while I get back to the main research topic at hand. I’ve been looking into the serious study of graffiti within archaeology for a project I have brewing, and some unexpectedly wonderful things have came up.
Yet these graffiti-ships “do not appear as decorative or representational images in other Bahamian contexts,” implying (as Carver says, that “Bahamian ship graffiti did not serve any aesthetic or decorative purpose.” She then connects the graffiti with a tradition of “wrecking” which involves both the court-endorsed practice of salvage and a more clandestine practice of putting lights on the coast in improper places, for ships to follow and crash upon the rocks.
Turner also describes each of the sites in detail, considering where the graffiti occurred, who was living there at the time, what tools were used to inscribe the stone and plaster surfaces, and even how much light was available at the time. Her conclusions about the socio-economic status of the graffiti artists and their intentions in depicting these ships trails off a bit–like a good archaeologist she’s trying to consider more than one explanation for these phenomena. If these lower-classed Bahamians were making plans and wrecking ships it certainly implies a willingness to prey upon the very same ships that might have brought them to the New World.
Kudos to Grace Turner and her interesting research! It must have been difficult to locate and draw all of the ships for her project.