Structural archaeologist Geoff Carter's radical view of building in the ancient world, especially the archaeology of the lost timber built environment of Southern England. It is new research into of prehistory of architecture, available in a series of articles that are designed to be read in order, and to be accessible to the non-specialist - and there is even some humour
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?
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.
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
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
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 informationuncritically 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 imaginarylandscapes with imaginarypeople, and
then imagining how these imaginarypeople perceived this imageryworld.
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.