And furthermore ...

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Saturday, 14 May 2016


Snapshots, postcards and miniature views of Percé Rock in Quebec.
“I don't see the point of photographing trees or rocks because they're there and anyone can photograph them if they're prepared to hang around and wait for the light.
David Bailey

350 million years ago, as the Devonian period drew to its end, taking with it various armour plated fish but giving the world forests and reptiles in return, a limestone scarp emerged on what was then Euramerica, a landmass to the northwest of Gondwanaland. Earth was still poorly defined although many of the sea creatures are recognizable as ancestors of our sharks, newts and eels. 

 Go forward a few hundred million years, to what is known as the late or Pennsylvanian era of the Carboniferous period and something roughly resembling North America is taking shape. The scarp is made of limestone, itself the product of billions of dead shellfish. Unlike granite it is made of organic, once living things, but like chalk, which is a form of limestone, and sandstone, which is another sedimentary rock, it is easily shaped by wind and water. 

  As this thing called North America finally emerges from the water, shaking itself dry like some shaggy hound, a small promontory near the mouth of the Saint Lawrence River breaks away, or more accurately is severed, from the mainland. Storms being considerably more powerful in those primeval times, this could have happened overnight. The arches however were the result of gradual erosion and took more time to appear.

Jump forward to 2500BCE, around the time Gautama Buddha is preaching in India, and the Mi’kmaq arrive in the area. By now the Gaspé Peninsular has the same shape it does today. No doubt the Mi’kmaq give the rock a sacred status. All over the world, from Uluru to Kilimanjaro to Angel Falls, distinctive natural features develop sacred status. In the case of Percé Rock, this would have something to do with its appearance, but with the arches already formed it gave the Mi’kmaq a more tangible benefit. The currents circling the rock and flowing through the arches would have attracted certain types of kelp, which in turn attracted one kind of fish that became prey to another. In other words the fishing would have been excellent, for humans and birds. Depending on the season, ducks, geese, pigeons and gannets were in abundance. Why would a Mi’kmaq move? 

 In 1534 French ships under the command of Jacques Cartier appeared. He was probably not the first European known to the locals. Fishermen from Bristol and the Breton coast had been working in the vicinity for at least fifty years and it is possible that Vikings had been in the area before that. The site at l’Anse aux Meadows in Newfoundland was a relatively short distance by boat.  

 There is a particular legend associated with the first French settlers at Percé, a rather unimaginative one about a too sensitive young sap and his lost love, but the story of Marguerite de la Rocque may not be legend at all, or only bits of it are. In 1541 she was on the expedition to settle New France, as the French called Canada, led by her uncle Jean-Francois de Roberval. Having offended him by her carry-ons with one of the crewmen, she, said crewman and her nurse were cast off on the so-called Island of Demons. This is generally considered to be Belle Island, further along the coast off the Newfoundland Coast but the point to think about is not the precise location but that name; Isle of Demons. One explanation for it is that during the autumn intense fogs blew down from the arctic and to French sailors the calls of thousands of gannets piercing the mists sounded decidedly demonic by anyone’s reckoning. The coast down to Percé was considered supernaturally dangerous, which it was given the extreme weather visited upon it. You can see why the French colonists kept pressing in until they reached what became Quebec City. Before that it was a coastline of madness.

Up until 1848 visitors to the rock saw two arches. The pinnacle at the back was attached to the main body until it crumbled that year. Because limestone is so soft the features could be said to be in a constant state of change. During World War 2 Andre Breton stayed in Percé and described the rock as “a razorblade rising out of the water … a marvellous iceberg of moonstone”. Although its sheer cliffs stop any major assault by tourists, it is likely that soon the only way to contemplate it will be from a safe distance, like Breton did. Not that the government is so concerned about protecting the rock but rather its soft texture and fragility will sooner or later seriously injure someone, which inevitably turns into legal suits.

 Finding photographs in Canada of Percé aren’t hard. It is one of the most photographed sites in the country and has become iconographic of Canada’s east coast the way that Uluru has come to be an emblem of Australia. The images in the gallery include snapshots, a postcard, miniature views and one panoramic view of the rock and the village, possibly taken on behalf of the Quebec or Canadian Government.


Saturday, 16 April 2016


A 1950s Canadian Road Trip
“Nothing behind me, everything ahead of me, as is ever so on the road.”
Jack Kerouac: On The Road

 In our popular mythology the road trip is a metaphor for the series of life changing events we need to experience. Usually they take place just before adulthood; so some indigenous cultures have initiation rituals where the transition is permanently recorded by way of scars or tattoos, we get into a car and drive. The journey’s distance and duration aren’t fixed; the point is that at the end the protagonist’s life has been changed, for the better. He or she is wiser now. 

  In the 1950s two people took a road trip to Toronto and one of them photographed it. The album was printed in Victoria but it was bought sixty years later in Montreal so we can’t be sure where they left from. Most of the photographs look like they were taken on that ubiquitous road that criss-crosses North America: mountains in the distance, motels and diners lining the sides; for all we know we could be in North Ontario or southern Arizona.

 But the real subject that holds our attention is the woman. Looking to be in her mid to late fifties, she holds  more or less the same pose in each photo, not because she doesn’t have the imagination to think of another but because the photos and her role in them are purely functional. They want photos of the places they visited along the way, and a reminder that they were there but nothing more.


The theory is that this was their first trip across Canada, and possibly in their first car. She looks to have been born close to the turn of the century and it’s easy to forget that people from her generation had their youth taken away by two world wars and a depression. It isn’t uncommon to read of people in Britain and Australia who couldn’t afford a car until the economic boom of the 1950s. Even when they had the money, time wasn’t always on their side. Anyone old enough to have people from this generation for grandparents remembers perplexed conversations about leaving lights on, why having a bath every night was normal and explaining that cars these days didn’t have a choke.   

Coming into being at the beginning of the decade that really gave us the contemporary  road saga, his little album is unaware of the stereotype. This is a road trip without any great revelations because of course they only happen in the world of fiction. Real road trips in Canada and Australia involve days of unchanging scenery, pulling into motels around sunset with frazzled nerves and short tempers and falling into conversations with strangers in bars about nothing at all. In films the conversation ends with the protagonist staring into his beer and realizing what he has to do. In real life he yawns and says he must go to bed now, ‘cause it’s a big day tomorrow with another 500 kms of low hills and dry scrub ahead.  

I suspect this is only one from several albums Belchers of Victoria B.C printed from the road trip. Even if it covered a relatively short distance – Ottawa to Toronto for example - there ought to be more photos from the rest of the journey somewhere. Not that we need them.  The story here is enough.


Thursday, 31 March 2016


Archaeology and postcards
“The past is still, for us, a place that is not safely settled.”
Michael Ondaatje

 There is now a long, visible and well researched history of the relationship between archaeology and photography. Mostly it is framed by concepts of power, so the first studios in Cairo and Constantinople that sold albums of images of pyramids and temples understood the connection between the places that European societies claimed to have come from and the places they now claimed as their own. The history of Postcards and archaeology follows the same course, with crucial derivations. The most important happened when institutions including state run and private museums took control of the images. All their archaeological postcards are political. The customer who bought a postcard from the Acropolis Museum in Athens and the person who received it were being offered a state sanctioned view of Greece’s long history; not just a statue but a reminder of Western Civilization’s origins, and its debts.

Archaeological photographs used to depend on two simple definitions. One was that the object pictured was dug up, or somehow recovered. The other was that it was old, preferably pre-historic, or before the written word. So long as one of these could be applied then the image at hand was archaeological. That has changed. Archaeology today has to be neither dug up nor particularly old. Even the most encompassing definition, that the item in question is tangible doesn’t matter anymore. Some media archaeologists live in a world of pure theory. Contemporary definitions still ride on an old motif however; that image of the archaeologist stumbling across some lost city in the jungle, or wiping the dust from a wall of ancient glyphs, but modern archaeologists have turned out to be a bunch of spoilsports. Not only has Stonehenge nothing to do with druidism, all the evidence unearthed recently suggests it was the winter solstice that drew the crowds. 

Chanctonbury Ring is a famous Iron Age fort in Sussex, hidden behind the copse on the hilltop. There are dozens of hill forts across England, built in the centuries before the Romans arrived, when available technology meant the hill was the easiest position to defend and to seek protection. With this image we see the hill fort’s position within the landscape, from the point of view of either an attacker or someone who would find sanctuary within it. Just how closely it resembles the landscape of the Iron Age is uncertain. There appears to be a large house in the centre just below the ring. Apart from that, the vegetation may be mostly native but we know that one impact of empire on the nation itself was a vast number of introduced plant species. During the late 18th and early 19th century it became fashionable to cultivate a kind of wilderness in Sussex, so areas would be set aside and allowed to grow into what was imagined an ancestral landscape. This would never have been allowed during the Iron Age. One thing we have learned about the Neolithic British is how enthusiastic they were for land clearance.  

 In World War 1 Osbert Crawford was attached to a survey corps, reading reconnaissance photographs of the trenches taken from aeroplanes. As an archaeologist in the 1920s he took the same idea, returned to the skies and turned his cameras on to the English landscape. From the air he was able to identify the prehistoric avenue connecting Stonehenge to the Avon River, which apart from everything else, expanded Stonehenge’s place in the landscape. Around the same time, the aerial photographic company, Aerofilms, was established. Aerofilms turned to publishing postcards, with archaeological sites one of the company’s most popular subjects. It isn’t hard to see why. Viewed from the air, the perspective of sites like Maiden Castle was literally transformed. It was more than a matter of reading the shape of the site from a new angle; it was also about reading the site’s context within the landscape. Aerial photography was the most important innovation in archaeology before the advent of LIDAR and its importance was transmitted through postcards.

Reading books like Bones by Elaine DeLay, you begin to think there must be no more miserable job on Earth than to be an archaeologist in the Americas. Fights between the traditionalists and revisionists are preliminary bouts compared to what happens once First Nations communities get involved, and it doesn’t require paranoia to detect the hidden hand of government agencies behind some of the biggest disputes. In 1998 the archaeologist Brian Billman said that his research into the Anasazi culture in Mesa Verde indicated an outbreak of cannibalism around the period 1150 to 1250 CE. For decades archaeologists had been seeking answers as to how and why the Anasazi culture collapsed so dramatically during that time. Cannibalism, Billman argued, was a symptom, not a cause, which is usually reckoned to be severe droughts brought on by some localized form of climate change, but it was not news that local indigenous people wanted to hear. A well-worn conflict re-emerged, between archaeologists who believed nothing should be immune to inquiry and First Nations people who responded that aspects of culture were private. Well, those were the basic position, minus the truckload of nuances usually dumped on these situations. For some First Nations people, a postcard view like this is problematic. It brings in tourists and relic hunters when what they would rather have is for history to follow its natural course and these ruins be allowed to slowly return to dust. 

 Call that attitude wilful intransigence if you want, but when you see photos like this, it makes sense. For a long time one of the drawcards to Teotihuacan and other Aztec sites was their association with human sacrifice. The architecture became mere set design. The Aztec Empire existed for a brief time before the Spanish conquest. Before then it was a multi-lingual and fluid confederation of cultures. The first reports of Aztec ceremonies came from the Spanish; to which details were later added by people who may have technically been Aztec but weren’t necessarily loyal to an idea. The spectators seen in the background would have paid to see an ‘authentic traditional Aztec’ performance but since none of the primary sources were trustworthy it was more accurately a recreation of European ideas of what a human sacrifice should look like – think Maureen O’Sullivan tied to a pole while Victor Mature struggles vainly with his captors.  Authenticity is a word archaeologists and historians try to avoid. Inevitably it is used to mean something directly opposite to the dictionary definition. 

The question of whether archaeology is an art or a science still raises its fuzzy little head though increasingly the revelations provided by technology such as LIDAR push it towards the latter. A good archaeologist need not know much about oxygen isotope analysis but he or she ought to know someone who does. It wasn’t always the case. Before archaeology there were antiquarians and orientalists, who travelled out to sites like Persepolis, sketched the monuments, collected artifacts and proposed theories. Archaeology was an art because it was romantic. With respectability however came responsibility and by the turn of last century very specific skills were required. Being able to read cuneiform was pretty much useless for everything in this world except an excavation at Persepolis and there it was essential. This image you feel tries to evoke that era when travellers might stumble upon some ruined city on the plain then gaze upon its monuments with a philosophical terror.

 A seemingly innocuous image of some ancient foundations but what it presents is a history of archaeology C1860s to 1940s, and then what was to follow. Not all middle eastern archaeology in the 19th century focused on the Bible but so much of it did that it is hard to tell these days whether we are dealing with scholars or fanatics. Take this scrap of wall and the bare framework of a hole. During the 1850s and 60s Orientalists were busy arguing over the site of the hill of Calvary when a number of tombs, including this one were excavated. Suddenly the world had a tomb just below the place then known as Skull Hill, and this according to some was close enough to the biblical account to suffice. There are dozens of very logical reasons why this cannot be the tomb Jesus was placed after being taken down from the cross, but that hasn’t stopped people visiting it as part of their crucifixion tour. Back around the 1940s when this photo was taken the politics surrounding the site were almost non-existent, or at least treated as such. Today while Jews and Muslims fight their battles, lesser known but often violent episodes break out here between Greek, Coptic, Roman, Protestant and other branches of the Christian faith. It no longer matters whether or not this is the actual site. What does is that some people badly feel the need for one. 

For a while there, we in the west could look upon archaeology’s tainted past with righteous shame. Museums throughout Europe were full of plunder that rightfully should be returned. The arguments were complex; there’d be no point in having them otherwise. How, for sinister example, could the British Museum and various medical colleges justify all those crates of remains of indigenous people, shipped out from Australia in the 19th century only to be dumped in the cellars and left unopened? Well it couldn’t, and so some were repatriated and everyone put on happy faces. But what about the Elgin Marbles? That was different. Athens was horribly polluted and returning them (right thing, of course) could see these prized sculptures crumble to dust like Dracula in the sunlight, (so wrong thing). The argument changed in 2015, when ISIS took control of Palmyra in Syria and began looting and destroying it. Palmyra represented the very foundations of Western Civilization; from its origins in the Bronze Age to becoming one of the centres of Eastern Greek culture, to one of the great Roman cities and then a major point on the Silk Road. The tragedy of Palmyra’s destruction was partly ameliorated by all that 19th century plunder on our part. Suddenly it looked like foresight that our museums, archaeologists and sundry scholars had been practising all along. Thank God we got all that stuff out in time. The cases for and against repatriation have ceased for the time being, and it is unlikely we will hear them for a long time, at least so far as the Middle East and Africa are concerned. In the meantime, London dealers will continue to keep the market in looted antiquities alive.