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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.


1 comment:

  1. Hello! As an archaeologist in training it was a pleasure to read this article and look at the pictures. A lot of the issues you mention are things we discuss in class every day and we have to always question ourselves about.
    Thanks for a good read!


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