Representing archaeology

In police procedurals on TV, “driving a desk” is always the worst punishment imposed by the gruff police chief on the maverick detective. Being pulled out of the field and made to fill out paperwork takes the heart out of the job — the protagonist is always trying to find away to get back into active duty. I feel somewhat the same way about archaeology: I was in the field almost every year for nearly the first two decades of my involvement in the discipline, and the last five years or so I’ve spent working on publication projects has left me very restless. I can understand why some field projects never get published — it’s just too tempting to stay out there.

So while most of my days recently have been spent writing a book that uses data produced by other archaeologists, and preparing a book that presents the results of my own most recent dig, I thought I’d spend the Day of Archaeology doing a little of the hands-on detective work that I miss. I couldn’t get my hands dirty, alas, but I could at least go digging in some archives. My mission: to find the original of a photograph of a UT Classics classroom taken in the 19-teens or 20s. The archaeological connection lies in the set-up of the classroom, which included a series of 1:1 plaster casts of ancient sculpture purchased from the workshops of August Gerber in Cologne and Caproni in Boston. William Battle, a influential Classics professor who taught at UT between 1893 and 1948, had acquired an extensive collection of such casts for teaching purposes. The collection, mostly intact, is now held by the Blanton Museum at UT Austin, which has been working on an interpretation project for the casts on display. This photo would be included in the interpretive material to explain how the casts were originally used.

Photograph of the Classics classroom in the Old Main building on the UT Austin campus. A series of casts of Classical sculpture are displayed around the room. The photograph is held in the archives of the Briscoe Center for American History at UT Austin.

Photograph of the Classics lecture room in the Old Main building on the UT Austin campus. A series of casts of Classical sculpture are displayed around the room. The photograph is held in the archives of the Briscoe Center for American History at UT Austin.


It wasn’t hard to find the photograph, thanks to the organization of the archives of the Briscoe Center for American History at UT Austin. The casts are clearly visible, standing along one wall (the Hermes and Dionysus attributed to Praxiteles, the resting satyr, the portrait statue of Demosthenes, the Venus de Milo) or mounted above (parts of the Parthenon frieze and the Nike balustrade from the Athenian Acropolis). But the photograph, and the larger project to which it is attached, gave me a chance to think about how we communicate information about archaeology, if not about how we gather information.

It’s the gathering that’s the sexy part — I am inevitably drawn more toward updates from the field than I am to discussions of publication or data management. But while the collection of information on the ground may form the core of the practice of archaeology, what distinguishes the discipline of archaeology from looting or treasure-hunting is the attempt to represent what we find to audiences who don’t have access to the original material. This is where people who work with material culture spend the bulk of their time. The documentation we collect in the course of excavation or field survey is in service of this goal, as are the published reports and monographs we produce. The interpretation and organization of archaeological evidence is important in this process, but not, I would argue, as important as the representation of the evidence itself (would a pottery report with no illustrations or descriptions be useful to anyone?).

We take most of this for granted. What we represent is in large part dictated by disciplinary tradition, which developed in turn in response to the basic needs of the community of practitioners (one records the height and diameter of an intact vessel because other people need that information to compare their material or draw conclusions about the vessel’s function). Discussions of representation focus more on “how” than on “what” or “why”, and this is especially true of the shift toward digital technology. Which is the better representation of a stratigraphic context in an excavation: a page in a site notebook? A computerized database record? A digitized notebook page, plus a database record, plus a plan in GIS or AutoCAD? All of the above, plus 3D? All of the above, but with the record generated only in digital form on a tablet?

All these documents are attempting to represent the same thing: a physical feature that has been destroyed, or at least is not present for the reader of the documentation. I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about the “how” lately, as I prepare the final publication of the excavations I co-directed with Larissa Sedikova in the South Region of the site of Chersonesos in Crimea. Our documentation ranges from scanned notebooks to records in L – P : Archaeology’s ARK database to 3D layers created with photogrammetry and visualized in ESRI’s ArcGIS.

Three representations of the same feature (an ambiguous pit): left, a verbal description in a site notebook; center, an ARK database record; right, a 3D pdf showing a model derived from photogrammetry and georeferenced in the site GIS.

Three representations of the same feature (an ambiguous pit): left, a verbal description in a site notebook; center, an ARK database record; right, a 3D pdf showing a model derived from photogrammetry and georeferenced in the site GIS.

But working with the history of the cast collection led me today to think about what we choose to represent, and why. These choices are not natural, but very much constructed by culture, and they are not fixed. Early Classical archaeology sprang very much from the rediscovery of Classical art during the Renaissance and Enlightenment, and as a result, the study of Classical archaeology for much of the 19th century was not easy to distinguish from what we now call “art history”. The cast collection at UT was assembled to assist in the teaching of Classical archaeology, which was itself seen as a way to round out students’ understanding of the Classical world from the literary sources. Study of the Classical world was itself seen as a fundamental element of cultural capital in the West at this time, which explains why UT was willing to invest a substantial amount of money in the acquisition of replicas of Classical art.

The replication of ancient figural art — intaglio gems as well as sculpture — through physical casting was widespread in the 18th and 19th centuries, as a tool for both teaching and research. A cast collection allowed students to view together objects distributed through dozens of museums and private collections, and it allowed those without the resources to travel to Italy or Greece to see ancient art first-hand (almost). Casts were the internet of their day.

But in the mid-20th century, they fell out of favor — they weren’t real art, only copies, and furthermore they had sometimes undergone minor modifications in surface treatment or the patching of missing pieces to make them more aesthetically appealing, so they weren’t even faithful. Many collections were destroyed or dispersed at this point, including the collection of casts at UT: soon after Battle’s death in the mid-1950s, they were sent into long-term storage or handed out around campus as decor for offices and departments. They were “rediscovered” and restored in the 1970s and have been on display as teaching resources since then — but there is no guarantee that the aesthetic tide won’t turn again, since these aren’t technically “works of art”.

In this case, a particular way to represent a particular type of archaeological material — Art, with a capital A — fell out of fashion, and then returned to fashion as we became more interested in the reception of Classical antiquity in the early modern period. As it becomes easier and easier to create and disseminate 3D models of objects in museum collections, I wonder where these objects will fit into the story. Like the casts, they’re a way to convey “first-hand” experience of objects to an audience that can’t get to the objects themselves; like the casts, they involve a certain amount of manipulation, invisible to the user, that reduces to some extent the accuracy of the representation. Even better than the casts, they can be created very easily with inexpensive technology, to the point where Sue Alcock’s recent “Archaeology’s Dirty Little Secrets” MOOC had students create their own as part of the course.

belevdere (Click to view in 3D)

3D techniques and computational photography provide an exciting new “how” for the representation of archaeological objects. The “what”, however, is dictated to a certain extent by the technology (freestanding objects in the round seem most popular). And the “why”, for now, is partly “because we can!”. It’ll be interesting to see whether digital 3D representations become a standard part of the archaeological toolkit, like photography, or whether there will be a intellectual backlash, as there was with the casts. After all, on a Platonic level, we’re moving ever further from the ideal expression of an object. Will 3D models bring greater access to ancient art and archaeology to the online multitude, as this Google-glass derived printable 3D model of a head of Marcus Aurelius in the Walters Museum suggests? Or is an admittedly cursory 3D effort to model the cast of a Roman copy of a Greek sculpture nothing but an even more indistinct shadow on the wall of the cave?

I think some of the most exciting digital work in Classical archaeology that will be done in the next few years will actually involve tracing and visualizing the representation of archaeological monuments and works of art across time. Max Schich is already doing this with representations of Classical monuments in later art, and the Arachne database of the German Archaeological Institute has a contextual browser that allows one to visualize the relations between, say, an intaglio gemstone, a cast of the impression of that gem, an engraving of the cast of the impression of the gem, a textual description of the engraving of the cast of the impression of the gem… Understanding not only how we represent our material, but what we choose to represent and why, may help us understand better our own archaeological practice.