25 October, 2008

7. Seeing is believing.

In 1817, Samuel Taylor Coleridge, an English poet and philosopher, came up with a theory about the readiness of people to accept ideas that are clearly fantastic and unreal when engaging with the arts, and the phrase "willing suspension of disbelief" entered the language. Television and literature are obvious examples, where we are prepared to suspend our critical faculties and our everyday model of reality in return for entertainment: We know it's not real, but we are prepared to forget that, in return for the emotional experience the medium induces.

This is particularly true of the visual media, which do not come close to our real visual experience of life; yet we are happy to accept images far removed from our reality. Images are powerful – “worth a thousand words” -- as the proverb goes, because they can convey large amounts of information very quickly, are easily memorised and recalled, and are capable of eliciting an emotional response. Images are far more powerful than text. Much of what people know about the world beyond their immediate experience, they absorb through visual media.

Most of us have never read a book about historical costume, but we ‘know’ a surprising amount about the subject. This we have ‘learnt’ through the countless images we have seen, and absorbed almost subconsciously. The same is true of the built environment of the past. Granted, some bits of our built environment are very old; but the further we go back in time, the more we rely on images for what we know.

Visualising the built environment is important to provide some backdrop to set other information against. The Channel 4 television program ‘Time Team’ amply demonstrates the importance of some form of visual backdrop to help us understand the past. The program documents three days' work on an archaeological site by excavators and other specialists, and it usually culminates in an artistic reconstruction of the site shown to the viewers at the end.
It is probably no coincidence that the most ‘popular’ ancient cultures are probably Egypt, Greece, and Rome, cultures that built in stone, and whose built environment in part survives. For visual media, such as television, the ancient built environment is vital visual shorthand; images of the pyramids, the acropolis, or the Coliseum instantly tell the viewer where in the past they are. Almost any program on Ancient Egypt will have to start with a picture of the Pyramids of Giza – even if then goes on to tell you that Tutankhamen, for example, lived 1200 years later. In addition, there are plenty of other temples, tombs, and palaces from all periods to form an appropriate backdrop for any program on Ancient Egypt. In the popular imagination, Egypt will always outshine its ancient rivals in Mesopotamia, whose mud brick architecture has turned to dust, and who typically have been visually referenced by a sculptural image.

Stonehenge is visual shorthand for prehistoric Britain; it can be used for all periods until the arrival of the Romans, where the Roman Wall takes over. In reality, there is shortage of good architectural backdrops to cover the period between Stonehenge and the Romans – about 2000 years. Small holes in the ground left by prehistoric buildings are not fertile ground for the visual imagination, and are far removed from most people’s idea of a built environment. Our entire visual understanding of the prehistoric built environment is derived from reconstruction, both physical and artistic.
Images are powerful, simple, and efficient methods of communicating, and as ‘Time Team’ amply demonstrates, artistic reconstruction is essential for the popular dissemination of archaeology. For the professional archaeologist, having a good reconstruction drawing in an archaeological report greatly enhances the chance of your site making it into syntheses and popular books on archaeology.

Physical reconstructions of ancient buildings are becoming increasingly common, and, like comparable artistic reconstructions, regularly appear on television. However, given that all that survives of our prehistoric buildings is the impression left in the ground by the foundations, on what are these reconstructions based?

Yet again we have to return to 1938 and Gerhard Bersu’s Little Woodbury excavation.[1]
Further Reading:
[1] G. Bersu (1940), 'Excavations at Little Woodbury, Wiltshire. Part 1, the settlement revealed by excavation'. Proceedings of the Prehistoric Society 6, pp. 30-111.