Witches and Wizards

Just a quick one today… I thought it was about time I actually told you lovely readers about the folklore of Long Meg and Her Daughters and why the site has the name it does. I’m sorry it’s taken me this long, I’ve been getting carried away with archaeological debates and theories in visualisation, when really stories about witches and wizards are so much cooler right?!

I won’t start with ‘Once Upon A Time’ – that always implies a happy ending and, if you believe this story, it’s not really a happy ending. The legend goes that Long Meg was a witch who was practicing a Pagan worship with her daughters when she was found by a Scottish wizard (some accounts insist that he was a saint) named Michael Scott, who then turned them to stone. Not so happy then, I personally wouldn’t want to be turned to stone for centuries. There may be hope for them yet though; the legend says that if the stones were to be counted twice the spell would be broken and Long Meg and her daughters would be released from their stony slumber. It’s a common legend associated with stone circles, and it is integral to the identity of the site as a heritage place. If anything else, it gives the stones a certain agency and an identity of their own which exudes an ‘other-worldliness’ and a sense of longevity. The contribution of folktales to our sense of heritage and history is therefore of an importance which shouldn’t be undermined.

Folklore and archaeology are an interesting mix. They have a kind of love-hate relationship. Folklore and legends are often the first thing that gets people hooked on the past which has the potential to lead them into studying archaeology. Take the legends of King Arthur or Robin Hood, for example, which are loved so much by so many people. Yet archaeology tries to disprove these legends, claiming that there’s always a more logical reason for that circular ditch over there (“no way is it the Round Table!”) or that sword found in that lake (“its Bronze Age actually so, ya know, it can’t be Excalibur”). I’m an archaeologist, a fact which is now inescapable, so of course I believe that there’s always a more logical reason for sites and features to be there. But that doesn’t mean that I don’t value legends and find them intriguing, or believe that there isn’t a grain of truth in them. They often offer a form of escapism, a way of living in a fantasy, and if that gets people interested in the past then where’s the harm in that??

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#nofilter: the blessings (and sins) of social media in archaeology

Today I thought I would write a little something on a favourite topic of mine: Instagram. I’m not going to be one of those people who pretends that they’re not addicted to social media; I’m flicking through my phone just as frequently as everyone else. That social media had become an integral part of my daily life is inescapable, and I’m not sure how I feel about that. Indeed, that it has become an integral part of our modern day culture is as equally inescapable, and for that reason heritage practitioners and archaeologists are increasingly turning to social media as a way of disseminating knowledge and current research about the past. This often makes it more accessible to members of the public than the research published in traditional journals and archaeological reports. Facebook pages for research projects and archaeological organisations have thousands of likes, and individual groups can be made in order to share and debate specific research interests in archaeology. The online community in archaeology and heritage is vast and easily accessible. So social media does have its advantages, and perhaps I shouldn’t feel as bad about using it as often as I do if the knowledge that I’m gaining and sharing is valuable (we won’t mention the Disney quizzes that I find myself compulsively doing at unearthly hours).

One social media platform that I find myself hooked on especially is Instagram. There’s something about sharing a small snapshot of my life, whether that be a particularly delicious lunch I had at that new café or the view from that mountain I just climbed, which makes me feel happy and almost blessed. I can’t explain it but I’m sure many of you understand. It’s like showing your family and friends your holiday pics after you’ve picked the developed photos up at Boots a week later. It’s like a personal documentation of your life which you can reflect on later, instilling those feelings of nostalgia we all love to feel. But honestly, why do we really do it? Who really cares what you had for lunch? And crucially, why do we need to put a filter on every photo? God forbid somebody puts a photo up without a filter. And if you do then it must be declared… #nofilter! Shocker that the world can look beautiful without a filter. There’s no doubt though that the filters do make a photo look ‘pretty’. But if we remember that stylistic choices imbue meanings into an image, then it’s not quite as simple as just being ‘pretty’.

This poses both a blessing and a sin in terms of archaeological photography. Apps such as Instagram and Hipstamatic are a blessing in that they provide a fast, easy way to share archaeological experiences in the field, and allow projects to update the public on their work almost instantly. The filters applied to these photographs also make them difficult to cite and republish as they obscure the archaeological site and degrade the file size of the photograph. On the other hand, once they are published online, they are not easy to control and can be used by others in contexts not initially intended for the photographs. The obscuration of the site also brings into question the truthfulness of the reproduction and can distort the reality of the place to someone who hasn’t visited the site, hence impacting their experience of the site.

Let’s demonstrate and explore this a little and get back to visualising Long Meg. I took some of the photographs from last weekend and did what I do best: I Instagrammed them (‘Instagrammed’ should definitely be a verb don’t you think?). Here’s a selection:

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Katrina Gargett 2015

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Katrina Gargett 2015

Both black and white and sepia filters create a significant meaning in terms of our perception of time. It suggests that the photo is archaic, a snapshot of the site from a time when photographic technology wasn’t as developed as it is today. And in that sense it suggests an association of the site with a time when man-kind wasn’t as advanced, both from the archaic filter and the depiction of a Neolithic site. It is both a comment on the advancement and superiority of modern day society over past societies, and a manifestation of the wish to ‘return to a simpler time’ when mankind wasn’t so advanced. It presents a contradiction. Black and white in particular is powerful in its stylistic representation – as well as being visually striking it simplifies the image and forces you to focus on other things, such as shape and detail, which may have been obscured or distracted from by colour. Does this simplification then also suggest a simplification of the subject matter? Does a black and white image of Long Meg suggest that her history is as black and white? Perhaps it is an attempt at making sense of the mystery behind why she was built. (Am I getting a little too abstract here?!).

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Katrina Gargett 2015.

Colour filters also convey meanings. Making a photo of the site a little more ‘blue’ potentially highlights the ‘coldness’ of the stones. It doesn’t look cosy at least. What does this then suggest about life in the past? Was everything a little bit colder and harder?

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Katrina Gargett 2015

Retro style filters in particular are popular and, like the black and white filters, suggest a certain nostalgia. These filters in particular highlight the interplay between analogue and digital photography, and illustrate the current fashion for analogue aesthetics within digital photography.

Perhaps the use of social media such as Instagram does indicate the “loss of the real” in photography and the credibility of the photograph as a useful archaeological document. Should they therefore be separated – a clear line drawn between photography used for the archaeological record and photography used for personal documentation of an experience? The debate over this is particularly prevalent in this day and age, especially now we have moved into the post-photographic era where the digital manipulation of photographs is almost too easy. I would suggest that, in order to maintain some verisimilitude then perhaps yes, they should be separated. However, you cannot undermine the necessity and usefulness of social media in promoting the work of archaeologists and helping us to connect with the non-archaeological community – Instagram is a fantastic platform for this and acts as the perfect place for a personal and public presentation of heritage topics and values. They should, in my opinion, be more highly considered in the field of heritage practice as a place of social communication and interaction on heritage matters, and a way to engage a wider, more diverse audience.

 

If you’re interested on the prevalence of social media in heritage practice why not have a little read of the articles which influenced this post:

Morgan, C. 2015. The Death (and Afterlife) of Archaeological Photography. Computer Applications in Archaeology Proceedings.

Giaccardi, E. 2012. Introduction: Reframing heritage in a participatory culture. In Heritage and Social Media, Eds Elisa Giaccardi. Routledge. Pp: 1-10.

 

Photographing the Druids Circle

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A cold, windy and wet day at Long Meg. Photo by Katrina Gargett, 2015

Hello folks! Sorry for my silence over the past week, I’ve been working on a few things – not just my uni work but other exciting things! But that can wait for another day… Let’s get back to my current mini-project – visualising the slightly neglected site of Long Meg and Her Daughters.

So this weekend, in order to fully engage with this project, I decided it was about time that I paid Long Meg another long-awaited visit. So Friday night, I packed my bag, bought my train tickets, squeezed myself onto the packed 18.06 train from Leeds to Carlisle and returned to my cold Northern homeland. Unfortunately, I managed to pick one of the worst weekends weather-wise to return home and the county was hit by gale force winds, torrential rain and flooding in the midst of storm Barney. But – it is the Lake District so I wouldn’t expect anything less. Once over I wasn’t sure if I would be able to make it to the site safely, but I am a hardy Cumbrian lass and I wasn’t going to let a bit of rain stop me.

Sunday afternoon then, my Dad and I took the short journey so I could reacquaint myself with the site and take some photographs. That was my primary aim which, happily, I achieved. However, due to the light conditions and the weather, the photographs didn’t turn out all that well and so I came away a little disappointed. Or did they? Did I really have a reason to be disappointed? Why does it matter that they weren’t as aesthetically pleasing as I hoped they would be? What is it about visualising the past that means we like to colour it and filter it? (Filtering is a whole other discussion, perhaps best left for another post because *raises hand* I’m one of the guilty ones).

These were the kinds of questions that I found myself asking whilst I was battling through the wind, trying to take photographs with my ice cold hands. The photographs I took are so highly subjective; they tell of my experience with the site on that day, taken from my perspective. It is generally acknowledged in the discipline of visualisation in archaeology, that all photography is subjective (if you’re interested in reading more on this start with the fascinating paper below by Michael Shanks).  Whereas it was once deemed scientific in it’s mechanical, electronic and chemical means of reproduction, it is now recognised as anything but. From the technological restrictions and physicality of the camera, limiting the photographers representational powers, to the  “artificiality and culturally bounded nature” of the photographers gaze, nothing can be completely objective (Moser and Smiles 2005, 3).  Like everything in visualisation, it all comes down to personal experience, self-context, skill and available technology informing the choices of representation. I therefore found myself seriously questioning what I was doing at the time. Would my IPhone be a good enough camera to do the site justice? Why am I so bothered about taking photographs of this site in the first place? What was it about my life values and concerns which brought me here? What do I really want to show and why? And perhaps most importantly, why do I feel that photography is the best way of showing Long Meg to someone who has never been there?

It’s funny isn’t it -that the concern with portraying sites to their absolute best potentially means we can miss out on representing the real experience of a site. Long Meg is quite a challenging site to capture as, being so large, it is difficult to get the whole circle in one photograph without using a panning shot (like the one above). Therefore, how I chose to frame every photo matters in that it creates meaning through selective representation. As stated by Smiles and Moser: “Formal and stylistic observations act as filters of meaning…” Photography is a very powerful tool for manipulating viewer’s perceptions.

In the photograph below, I chose to frame Long Meg to the right of the picture, looking over the rest of the stones in order to show the relationship and distance between her and the rest of the circle. What does it tell us archaeologically? Not a lot really. You can’t tell the topography of the land all that clearly. You can’t tell the distance between the stones accurately. You can’t even see the situation of Long Meg in the wider landscape – were there processional routes? Was it near a river? Or a settlement? – In this sense, the photo is slightly futile.

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Photo by Katrina Gargett 2015

What you can see though, is an experience. You can see where I trekked through the long grass from Long Meg to the take the photo at that standpoint which I deemed important – my own processional route in a way. And you can see storm clouds, you can imagine the cold and the wind. You can see the Pennines behind, drowning in said storm clouds. You can see how I got to the site, with the slightly out-of-place car hidden in the background.

So, even though it’s not the best photo of the site, that doesn’t matter. What matters is that it’s a snapshot in time. A static representation of my experience on that day, which I’m sharing with you because it’s a site I care about and I want to tell you its story through my eyes. And without a photograph of the site, how could you possibly begin to visualise that story?

This leads me to conclude that: Photography is such a necessity as a means of recording and visualisation in archaeology that, to question why and how we do it is a necessity in itself.

Shanks, M. 1997. Photography and archaeology. In The Cultural Life of Images: Visual Representation in Archaeology. Molyneaux , B L (eds) London: Routledge. 73-107.

Smiles, S. & Moser, S. (eds). 2005. Envisioning the Past: Archaeology and the Image. Malden: Blackwell, 1-11.

Speak Giant-mother!

Some thoughts for a Sunday:

The monument commonly called Long Meg

A weight of Awe not easy to be borne
Fell suddenly upon my spirit, cast
From the dread bosom of the unknown past,
When first I saw that family forlorn;
Speak Thou, whose massy strength and stature scorn
The power of years – pre-eminent, and placed
Apart, to overlook the circle vast.
Speak Giant-mother! tell it to the Morn,
While she dispels the cumbrous shades of night;
Let the Moon hear, emerging from a cloud,
At whose behest uprose on British ground
That Sisterhood in hieroglyphic round
Forth-shadowing, some have deemed the infinite
The inviolable God that tames the proud.

William Wordsworth, 1822

It’s not exactly ‘visualisation’ but isn’t it lovely. It is by the notable William Wordsworth (I’m sure you’ve all heard of him!) and it speaks of Long Meg herself looking over her ‘family forlorn’. Wordsworth describes his ‘weight of Awe’ and expresses his trouble at ‘the unknown past’ (something many archaeologists may sympathise with). He tells the story of Long Meg and how she came to be turned to stone: “The inviolable God that tames the proud.” He describes the elemental nature of the site in a way only a Romantic poet could: “…whose massy strength and stature scorn.” The poem is more than just a phenomenological account or a descriptive narrative.

Anyone who’s been to the Lake District knows that Wordsworth is a key figure in the history of the area. The associative heritage values which are forcefully inflicted upon every place which Wordsworth visited, or touched, or was possibly seen, make up a huge part of the Lake District’s overall heritage. Just the fact that he wrote a poem about Long Meg tells of the significance of the site to the poet, and this, through association alone, raises the profile of the site to the level of the wider heritage of the Lake District. On a smaller level, it also tells of a singular past perception of the site – that of Wordsworth’s himself. It is a significant addition to the layers of meaning entwined within the stones and provides us with a link to the temporal existence of the place – a moment in 1882 when Wordsworth trudged around the stones as we do today. It is a powerful document of this encounter.

Let’s briefly acknowledge the power of poetry and its potential in archaeological discourse. Recently in class we’ve been thinking about text in museum displays which has led me to start thinking about how we describe and inform visitors about what they’re looking at. Perhaps poetry is underrated as a means of narrative.

Surely, in its own semi-ambiguous way, poetry can encourage deeper thought – and therefore deeper engagement with the subject matter in hand? This comes back to the question of intended meanings and personal self-contextual interpretations. I could get dragged into the ‘Death of the Author’ theory here (I frequently get jolted back to my brief stint in History of Art and sitting in a stuffy seminar room learning about Barthes whilst drinking coffee which I inevitably let go cold) – but let’s keep this simple. Whatever meanings Wordsworth wanted to convey about Long Meg and Her Daughters, we as modern day readers read his words in our own ways, and we probably don’t read it as he would have wished. However we’re ‘supposed’ to read it though, it still remains subjective and we bring our own baggage to the interpretation table.

I want to suggest that poetry is more powerful in helping us to engage with sites and objects on a deeper, more meaningful level. Even the style of language elicits more work from the reader to decipher what Wordsworth is describing and what story he is telling us.  So should it be used more as a creative way of describing sites and collections in museums – in order to make the viewer work harder for their sought-after archaeological knowledge. and hence provoke a deeper level of engagement? Or shall we stick to the simple less-than-75-word plaques which get the job done and tell the visitor what the curators want them to know about the objects in from of them?

No doubt somewhere, at some time, poetry has been used in a museum as a narrative medium and this isn’t a novel idea at all. I congratulate any curator(s) who have used it – I just hope it gets used more often, especially at the premise of the ‘post-museum.’

Despite all that, it’s just a lovely poem about a lovely site!

Art and Archaeology: a love affair?

I will admit that I’ve struggled with this blog post. It’s not the actual writing which bothers me, or the thought of people clearly more educated in the vast world of archaeological visualisation reading my humble thoughts (this is a place as much for me to explore my ideas on how we visualise archaeology as it is for you lovely readers to be entertained). It’s simply that over the past six weeks of immersing myself in the huge array of literature on visual media in archaeology I find myself somewhat overwhelmed. From the (un-)surprising relationship between art and archaeology, to the verisimilitude of representations in film and television, to the increasingly didactic nature of museum displays since the eighteenth century – I find myself emerged in a new (for me at least) way of looking at representations of the past, which makes me question even the most basic form of media in archaeology. And so I find myself wondering, how I can even begin to apply the various theories and ideas to the site I so enthusiastically introduced last week? And for that reason, I’ve been putting it off – it’s not that I have nothing to say, it’s that I have too much to say!

Let’s take baby steps then. I’ll begin with the artistic representation of Long Meg and Her Daughters (perhaps not baby steps?!). I realise that the use of art in archaeology is a contested subject (isn’t everything in visualisation?!) and there clearly isn’t room in this blog post to go into too much depth on the debate surrounding the artistic representation of the past. I’ll stick then with one painting to analyse. Indeed, there are very few painting of Long Meg available online, and I hope there are many more out there which people have painted over the years – whether proudly sat on a living room wall or gathering dust in the corner of someone’s attic!

The piece I am going to focus on is by the artist Sam Douglas:

© Sam Douglas 2014 Long Meg and her daughters 30x20cm Oil on board

© Sam Douglas 2014
Long Meg and her daughters
30x20cm
Oil on board

It is an oil-on-board piece simply titled ‘Long Meg and Her Daughters’. It has an element of photorealism, painted from a single perspective with Long Meg in the foreground and her daughters gathered in the distance. The tree demands a large amount of attention being centrally located within the painting. However, it doesn’t tell me a lot else about the site. So what is it about? How can it be useful to us as archaeologists?

Perhaps like this:

Douglas’ paintings have been described as “much more to do with how he ‘feels’ about the natural environment and the emotional responses it stimulates than the physical topography that initially lies before him” (www.contemporarybritishpainting.com). The key terms here are “feels” and “emotional response”. How this is evident in the picture is ambiguous, but a simple critical reading of the painting -looking at form, colour, tone, lighting etc.- suggest to me a brooding, secretive, almost mysterious feeling. Is it almost suggestive, given the subject matter, of our frustrations with trying to understanding the past. Indeed, if I was to fully understand this piece I would have to get in touch with Douglas himself and ask about his life; his background, his education, his beliefs, hopes, desires. Why has he painted it in this way? Is it supposed to be photo realistic? Or abstract? What meanings does he want to convey about the site? What was his experience of the site? I could go on…

I have to acknowledge here that Douglas is an artist, not an archaeological illustrator. As far as I am aware the painting is not intended for an archaeological audience. Yet current thinking encourages the crossing of disciplines in order to fully engage with archaeological practice and the process of interpretation. This is emphasised by Colin Renfrew when discussing Richard Long’s ephemeral open-air sculptures and how this has impacted his view on the agency of Neolithic burial chambers in Orkney. As he states “All experience is subjective (2003, 42), whether in the past or the present. Looking at paintings like this then, is useful to archaeologists in that it highlights the necessity of the subjective approach to experiencing our material past. Perhaps Douglas’ slightly murky effect not only tells of his experience with the site, but also of the experience a visitor can expect when they go to the site.

Personally, I like Douglas’ style, and the question of whether it is accurate or archaeologically meaningful is irrelevant to me to an extent. It is very much about personal experience, which is something the discipline of art can teach to the discipline of archaeology; step away from the obsession with objectivity and embrace the human senses. Embrace how they form your experience and explorations of the past. Above all, embrace how they make you feel within yourself.

Perhaps the benefits which arise from the relationship between art and archaeology should not be underestimated. Together they form a powerful and influential couple – maybe they’re a match made in heaven?! Who knows.

Renfrew, C (2003) Figuring It Out: The Parallel Visions of Artists and Archaeologists London: Thames and Hudson, 26-49.