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.
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.