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
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” ( 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.


Introducing The Mini- Project: Visualising Long Meg And Her Daughters

In my pursuit of exploration in the world of visual media in archaeology I have decided to focus on a site which I have a particular affinity with: the Neolithic stone circle of Long Meg and Her Daughters. I’m not sure why this is. I guess from a young age I had a fascination with stone circles; their raw simplistic beauty and mystery seemed to appeal to the younger me, and indeed they still do. This is something I most probably share with many other people, as evident by the sheer number of people who visit sites such as Stonehenge and the Stones of Stenness at the mid-summer and mid-winter solstices each year. Why do we feel such an affinity with these places? And why do some people accept them as part of their heritage and others regard them as monuments belonging to other peoples (of the past and present)? I suppose I see Long Meg and Her Daughters as part of my heritage, as a local of the area.

Looking east towards the Eden Valley from the village where I grew up. Photo Credit: Katrina Gargett, 2104

Looking east towards the Eden Valley from the village where I grew up. Photo Credit: Katrina Gargett, 2014

The Lake District, looking towards Keswick. Photo credit: Katrina Gargett, 2015

The Lake District, looking towards Keswick. Photo credit: Katrina Gargett, 2015

I was lucky enough to grow up in Cumbria, a truly beautiful part of the world. My village is conveniently located on the border between the dramatic Lake District to the west and the rolling Eden Valley to the east, both of which have their fair share of prehistoric sites. It was my visits to Castlerigg Stone Circle, near where I went to school in Keswick, which first got me hooked. It might surprise you to know that, for years, I thought this was the only stone circle near to where I lived. It wasn’t until a few years ago that I found out Long Meg and Her Daughters even existed, after a conversation with my Dad. I immediately demanded that he take me there. Why I hadn’t discovered it before, I really don’t know.

The site is located near Little Salkeld in the Eden Valley. On visiting the site, apart from the obvious beauty of the place, it struck me how different it was from any other stone circle I had ever visited. We were the only people there. I’d never experienced this before. And it was huge – it is one of the largest stone circle in the country. So where were all the visitors? Why was it not well signposted? Do people know about this place? My research since tells me that yes, people do know about Long Meg and Her Daughters. Yet when someone asks you to name a stone circle in Britain, or in Cumbria even, I bet few people would say this site. I want to raise the profile of the site. I want to bring all the stories, drawings and photographs together in one place to build up a picture of the site. I want to document its influence over people’s lives and address the importance of archaeological visualisation. I want to discover the role of heritage and the place it takes in in our modern-day lives, through my own personal experience of Long Meg. I intend to use media such as photography and video to experiment with this.

Long Meg and Her Daughters. Photo credit: Katrina Gargett, 2014

Long Meg and Her Daughters. Photo credit: Katrina Gargett, 2014

The site has a fascinating history and over the course of the next few weeks I will explore all aspects of this. Long Meg has clearly captured the imaginations of countless people, judging from the folklore surrounding the site, the poetry written by poets including Keats and Wordsworth, the coloured ribbons tied to the tree in the centre of the circle, and the flowers often laid at the foot of Long Meg herself. I will argue that am one of these people, I can see the romantic appeal of the place. Yet my archaeological brain tells me to view the site differently, objectively, as something to record. Do I often wish to go back to the innocent days before the archaeological ‘sight’ when I could appreciate more fully the mysterious romanticism of the place? Perhaps. But then I wouldn’t have the appreciation of the site I have now, from this contextual standpoint I currently stand. Which do I value more? Whose view and interpretation of a site is the correct one? Who does a site like this belong to?

It is questions like these that I could easily get entangled in now, but then I would simply be rambling. For now, this discussion can wait until later on in this blog. I will endeavour to raise issues such as this – the dialogue between archaeologists and the true representation of the past, the debate between objectivity and subjectivity, the relationship between art and archaeology etc. – throughout this mini-project. Until then, I hope I have wetted your appetite and explained a little of why Long Meg is such a special site and deserves more attention than it currently receives…

The Beginning

The first post. Always a nerve-wracking moment. I always feel like there’s a lot riding on it. Maybe that’s why I’ve put off setting up an archaeology blog for a while. But happily, here I am, ready to share my work and musings on heritage visualisation with the big wide world which exists outside of my little archaeology bubble. So welcome to my blog!

Let me introduce myself…  My name is Katrina and in some ways I’m just another archaeology and heritage student, a third year undergraduate studying at the University of York, often preaching to all who know me how amazing heritage is and how much I love what I study. In others, I’m a unique heritage and archaeology student – I know, that’s quite a statement to make! –but aren’t we all? We all have our own unique interests and passions, our own individual backgrounds, our own heritage. So I’m unique just as you are, and heritage and archaeology just happen to be one of my passions, along with Yorkshire Tea and country music. Unfortunately, I can’t sing, so some years ago I chose to pursue my love of archaeology and here I am. I’m lucky that I have a whole career ahead of me doing what I love, and this blog exists so I can take you along for the ride.

Truthfully, this blog also has an ulterior motive. As part of my third year Visual Media in Archaeology module this is going to act as a place for me to explore my ever increasing knowledge on archaeological visualisation and heritage practice. I will start off with a mini-project of my own where I will do all this exploring I speak of. My mini-project will focus on a site close to my heart, near where I grew up in Cumbria – a Neolithic stone circle known as Long Meg and Her Daughters. Through creating my own representations of the site using different forms of media, and critically reviewing visual representations which have been produced before – from antiquarians and poets to amateur filmmakers – I hope to bring greater attention to this special site. I also hope I can bridge the gap between archaeological theory and practice by applying the debates and issues in heritage visualisation to the site, in an attempt to explore and make these issues clearer.

I’m painfully aware that I’m new to this, and I’m still only taking my first tentative steps into heritage practice. Hopefully this blog will allow me to be more critical of my work and operate as a platform for reflection, as well as keeping you updated with my adventures. If you’ve made it this far then I applauded you – stick around and I will hopefully give you a small insight into the world of heritage visualisation!