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.

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