13 February, 2013

Doubt, and the archaeology of the imagined past.

 One thing that was apparent at the CAA conference [Computer Applications in Archaeology]  at Southampton, was the ability of our current technology to produce any image we can imagine with a remarkable degree of realism.  The look of the past, the shared visual culture, is commercially important to the entertainment industry, and in some senses is the end product offered to consumers of archaeology as infotainment.  As a structural archaeologist, while I am groping towards an understanding of how a Neolithic longhouse was engineered, the one thing I am certain of is that I don’t know what a building ‘looked’ like.
So, given the ability to visually express anything we can imagine - how do we express doubt?
Subversive images
To produce a good ‘artistic reconstruction’ in any form, requires not only skills which I do not possess,  but far more importantly, decisions about issues for which there is no archaeological evidence.
It is down to the artist to ‘realise’ the past, it is not part of my brief as an archaeologist.  
So, to be hard line; it is not my job to make things up - especially to put potentially misleading pictures into the visual culture of the past.
While am happy to draw a diagram to communicate what I understand, there is an expectation of an image that can be believed.  In attempting to resolve this conflict, I have sought novel ways expressing or creating doubt in images,  at best to encourage the viewer think critically about an image, and perhaps to subvert the existing pictures in their mind. 

This is a version of a previous image of a Neolithic Longhouse; it has a Ford Mondeos parked outside because;
  • It deliberately subverts the idea / rules of reconstruction
  • It provides an easily comprehended idea of scale
  • It makes the past feel more familiar, mundane, and utilitarian.
In the next post, I will show how this model has developed; the idea of ‘best fit’ and degrees of certainty is an important aspect of this approach; doubt is an on-going and developing form of understanding. 

Studying the Imaginary past
Archaeological reports are full of diagrams, much of the data is in the form of plans and sections, which are difficult to comprehend. In addition, their significance is often lost in the impact of the ‘reconstruction’ on the cover; which is an imaginary and fictional visual abstract of thousands of meticulously gathered pieces of information.
The ‘suspension of disbelief’ required to comprehend an image, offers a way of absorbing large amounts of information uncritically and subconsciously, which then can exert a powerful influence on subsequent thinking.  In some ways, we are prisoners of this conditioning, the product of our contemporary pictorial representations of the past.

The visual culture of British prehistory is a tradition of artistic and physical  reconstructions, heavily influenced by observations of the ‘primitive cultures’ encounter during European cultural expansion and exploration.  While what was seen in Africa might have been their ‘Iron Age’, it was not ours, but regardless of the lack any enviromental, cultural, and technological similarities, these images continue to influence our picture of our own prehistory.
This visual conditioning has effected the way the past is thought about, and scholarship has undoubtedly been informed by this imaginary visual culture of the past. It has become legitimate to think of the past in terms how it was perceived at the time, but whose pictures of the past are we discussing?
Modern archaeological thinking, like post-processualism, seems to involve peopling these imaginary landscapes with imaginary people, and then imagining how these imaginary people perceived this imagery world
So that is the problem with pictures, they can create belief without recourse to understanding.
The fictional pictures of the past, and the ideas they generate about belief and cosmology, soon become articles of faith and an obstruction to understanding the real diagrammatic evidence.  Since the visual dogma of faith based archaeology is an officially sanctioned, peer-reviewed and publically funded delusion, so inevitably it transcends the need for doubt.


Maju said...

Liking the image (almost wrote "photo", go figure!) of the mondeos. It makes the loghouse look almost a modern farmhouse (well, maybe one from the 19th century well preserved) and it does indeed provide a quite shocking sense of scale.

Do we know for a fact that the loghouses (of Danubian Neolithic or related cultures, I presume) had two storeys and a penthouse/granary on top of them? My suspension of disbelief tends to clash with that rather than the mondeos.

Geoff Carter said...

Thanks for liking/falling for the image; in the next post I will explain my modelling of these structures as two storey, I have touched on it elsewhere.

I wanted to deal with Images v diagrams distictions & limits of images - before I show you my new picture of a longhouse!

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