18 June 2011

So how did it go, my visit to the Archaeology Department at York University?  It went really well, because there is a real interest amongst  the archaeologists present to listen to what fine artists have to say about their own non-formal take on the subject.  Not only was there a sympathetic interest in the paintings and drawings that I’d taken over with me, but there was a good response to the invitation to ask me questions, and I found this both stimulating and enormously valuable.  I am grateful to Dr Nicky Milner, one of the directors of the work at Star Carr, for the invitation.


(Dr Milner at the excavation site at Star Carr)


My visit to York got me to start re-reading Jennifer Wallace‘s fascinating book on the subject of archaeological imagination, ‘Digging the Dirt’, where in the very first chapter she touches on two linked areas which are of particular interest to artists.  Here is the first:


“The archaeological imagination is faced, I believe, with a dilemma.  Excavation is a fundamentally ambivalent activity.  Like Schliemann, the excavator destroys his material as he discovers it.  Like Schliemann, he is captivated by the magical past, which vanishes. . . .   It is the depth, the sedimentation, the embedding soil, which gives the objects their aura, their historical, political significance . . . Nevertheless those objects can only be contemplated once that context has been disturbed.  Though the archaeologist might spend much of his day digging, he studies the results of that excavation back at the top . . .  Thus the archaeological imagination responds to what is missing rather than to what is there.  It snatches objects from the ground only to try to restore some sense of their original context in the earth so as to understand them properly.  It substitutes a story or an interpretation in place of what actually lies before it or in compensation for what has been lost or still lies buried.  It attempts to transfigure the bleakness of the material with which it has to deal and to find something of significance in what can only be imagined, in the fancied depths, in what has disappeared.” (p24)


This is a very valid point, and indicates an unavoidable situation the archaeologist has to deal with all the time.  The very finding, and therefore removal, of the object destroys its proper context, no matter how carefully she might work.  However, perhaps it is the very necessity of imagination, the bringing of a pattern that makes sense over the disparate pieces of the puzzle, that engages the archaeologist.  It certainly engages me as an artist.  I’m realising that I do not have the constraints of the archaeologist.  In other words, my imaginative projection of the significance of the object found is not bounded by the need to accommodate data, unless I specifically want to.  That may take me off on a complete tangent at first glance, as far as the archaeologist is concerned, but is that necessarily true?  Might the freedom the artist brings to the reconstructive process result in an appreciation of deeper, below the surface, non object based truths about how human beings think and feel?  Might my abstract visualisations introduce a perspective of thought that the archaeologist  might fruitfully take up?  If my sympathetic  reception at York is anything to go by, this is definitely a possibility. 


(The contents of a trench at the Star Carr site)


The second point Wallace makes it this:

“Archaeological sites possess a resonance or ‘aura’ based on what is there now, what used to be there and what happened in between.  . . .   For only if one actually stands in a place can one compare its present appearance with what is known about its past, both its original history and its excavation.  And the comparison brings home the ambivalent relationship  between material culture and the imagination, between what we see before us now and what we must imagine.” (p25)

Take the contents of the trench at the Star Carr site.  To any passing rambler, it is just a collection of muddy sticks.  But on explanation that these sticks are 11,000 years old, and are evidence of human interaction with the environment of the time, a time when there was no North Sea and we were joined to mainland Europe by ice and snow, the rambler is likely to have their breath taken away.  Knowledge gives us quite a different  perspective on what lies before us.  Artists have always known, and played on, the disparity between life as it is, and life as it is perceived, that which is seen and that which is understood.   It is something that currently contributes to the postmodernist view that a plurality of viewpoints means that there can be no longer a single narrative that encapsulates truth.  I don’t know that I agree with that, but that’s a subject for future thought.

For the archaeologist,  this necessary combination of data with interpretation has its own drawbacks, not the least obstinate being the fact that as twenty first century beings, we cannot help but interpret what we see according to our own place in time.  Even with the most thorough of trainings, how can the archaeologist be sure that the resulting interpretation of the site or the artefact in question is not coloured by a frame of thought which exists now but may not have existed then?  Archaeologists seem to be very aware of this problem.  It probably adds to the conviction that there cannot be an accurate piecing together of the past, especially the prehistoric, and that the sensible route is to think in terms of co-existent narratives, a plurality of options.  Again this is something that can engage the artist, for there is room here for imaginative reconstruction that need not be trammelled by data, and that may throw up combinations of ideas that are eccentric but nonetheless worthy of investigation by the archaeologist. 


(Portrait of Daniel-Henry Kahnweiler – Picasso – 1910)


Which brings me back to Picasso.  Was he the first archaeological artist?  I doubt if anyone has ever asked that question before, but it’s quite legitimate especially in reference to Cubism.  Here Picasso carefully picks apart what is seen by the eye and known by the mind, and presents it in a way that demands of the viewer that she engages with it beyond the visual.  Can you discern the subject of the portrait?  Isn’t it deliberately obscured by the dismantling of preconceptions?   Isn’t there a prerequisite of an open mind, a tolerant eye?  Isn’t that what is so absorbing about archaeology, the very same collaboration between the right and the left sides of the brain?  And, as with archaeology, the result is something that at first glance is disconnected and unremarkable, but on reflection becomes an object of wonder and brings with it an enduring beauty of its own.  Picasso’s portrait of Kahnweiler might never have replaced the passport photo, but it has introduced to the world a new way of bringing significance and meaning to seemingly disparate parts, not to mention create a new category of that which is beautiful.  What do archaeologists make of it I wonder?

Carmen Mills





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