#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:


Katrina Gargett 2015


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?!).


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?


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.



2 thoughts on “#nofilter: the blessings (and sins) of social media in archaeology

  1. Very very interesting… not just this post, but all of them. It’s a fascinating subject and Long Meg and Her Daughters… how beautiful. I’ve been meaning to comment for some time… and I apologize for not really doing your post justice now (time.. urgh) I hope to add to this later. I did want to at least mention a couple things you might find interesting. Have you seen the colorized photos of Carter’s Tutankhamun’s excavation? Besides being lovely, the impact that color has on perception of them is profound, at least for me. This is made more so by the use of a very ‘natural’ or modern color balance. It is so modern, in fact, that it is almost disconcerting, as it makes the events and artifacts seem so immediate, not compartmentalized off into some part of history. Hmm… I’m not sure if this platform will allow links, but I’ll try. here is one of the best presentations I’ve seen of the work: http://www.buzzfeed.com/matthewtucker/awesome-photos-of-the-discovery-of-tutankhamuns-tomb-have-be?utm_term=.tsdG22rmd#.nyOLXX8JP

    If that doesn’t work, check out dynamichrome on twitter.. they’re the ones that did the work. Actually it’s worth looking at their feed even if the link above is good.

    Oh.. Eric Kandel’s book “The Age of Insight” is a great exploration of the effect of thoughts, the subconscious, and emotions on our relationship with art. The first half of the book is largely focused on art and the second on the neuroscience related to perception. It’s been a while since I read it, but I believe it is quite applicable to photography and other media, even if the focus is on the early 20th century. It had a huge impact on me.

    Thank you very much for sharing your thoughts and insights through this blog. It’s much appreciated. I discovered your work through a post by Colleen Morgan. I’m from a very different generation when it comes to social media (I was 18 and at university before I had an email address (’89!)) It (social media) hasn’t really played a large role in my field (theoretical chemistry) at least among my close colleagues so discovering all that is going on in the digital humanities has been great… and inspiring. All the best!

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thank you so much for your lovely comments and I’m glad you’re enjoying my blog so much! I’m sorry it’s taken me so long to reply, like you say, time seems to get away so quickly… I had a quick look at the colourised photo’s of Carter’s excavation – they’re beautiful! And I see what you mean about the contemporaneous feel which they now have. They’re lovely but if I’m being honest, I think I prefer them in black and white!
      I’ll have a look at Eric Kandel’s book, it sounds very interesting – it might be interesting to see whether it has any kind of impact on how how I view today’s photography and related media. (I’ll let you know!) Thanks for the recommendation.
      All the best to you!


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