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Re-Presenting the Past: Archaeology Through Text and Image

Re-Presenting the Past: Archaeology Through Text and Image

Edited by Sheila Bonde and Stephen Houston (Joukowsky Institute Publication 2). Pp. xvi + 215, figs. 58. Oxbow Books, Oxford 2013. $40. ISBN 978-1-78297-231-0 (paper).

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If he could watch this 3D digital model of ancient Rome, produced by international experts, previously on Google Earth and now at, Flavio Biondo would be amazed; Piranesi, probably, disappointed. Today’s teenagers might hail it as a backdrop for computer games. Researchers can label it as erring on either side of reality, almost but not quite real or, on the contrary, more concentrated than real—perceiving either the model’s “deficiency” or its “intensity” (N. Gray, “Seeing Nature,” History of European Ideas 20[1–3] [1995] 342–43). That so many reactions are possible warrants this volume’s lucid investigation into the visual proxies for the past that are delivered by archaeologists. There is talk in this volume of Bruno Latour, Derrida, and Barthes, as well as of AutoCAD, Maya 7.0, and ArcGIS; and, naturally, there is much more attention to the past-as-reconstructed than to that utter stranger, the past-in-itself.

The introduction by the editors frames the contents in a moderately skeptical postmodernist discourse. They disavow the view that any representation “is as good as another because of its value to the person proposing it,” but relativity is maintained insofar as what matters is not subjectivity vs. objectivity (an “oversimplified dichotomy”), but how knowledge “claims are made and how they are to be evaluated” (3). The nine essays revolve around sites from the Old as well as the New World, with chronological and geographical variety within both categories.

Smiles scrutinizes how “considerations about national identity” (13), among other things, influenced antiquarian illustration in Britain from 1750 to 1850. Such images, of artifacts or monuments, are never disinterested; they record, but they also invent (13). Smiles moves on to warn that seductively realistic images of the past may also give ideology better tools for manipulation, echoing the editors’ interest in the ethical issues surrounding representation. Subsequently (18), he resorts to Barthes (“L’effet de réel,” Communications 11 [1968] 84–9), who demonstrated that the use of very concrete details can well remain a mere rhetorical device, driven not by the need for accuracy but by the art of persuasion (Houston also applies this in ch. 4 to overly accurate profiles). It is emblematic of the book’s broad-minded approach that concepts first used elsewhere, in this case in literary analysis, are applied to archaeology. Barthes was referring to Flaubert’s description of Rouen; and Serres—whose “ichnography” Witmore uses in his article—introduced it during a discussion of Balzac’s Chef-d’œuvre inconnu.

Bonde and Maines are interested in how modern scholarship represents monasteries compared with how these communities represented themselves (e.g., on seals, plans). Medieval plans of Saint Gall, or of Christ Church, Canterbury (plumbing and all), are side-by-side with the “visual omniscience” (26) of 19th-century bird’s-eye views of Benedictine abbeys. This review of “panoptic” and “synecdochal” representations ends with a reconstruction drawing of part of a monastery that is “normally edited out” (34): the latrines at Saint-Jean-des-Vignes (fig. 3.7).

Houston offers a valuable presentation of the styles of profile drawing on Maya sites, in their historical development, and split into the categories “mimesis” (fig. 4.2 [drawing by Coe]) and “interpretive conventionalization” (fig. 4.4 [drawing by Ledyard Smith]). The former style attempts to show the profile as the eyes see it, with every stone retaining its individuality and every layer as it really appears. Not only is this ultimately unachievable, but such allegedly true-to-nature drawings turn out to be “saturated with prior decision-making about what to include” (43). The latter, with its processed, idealized, and rectified profiles, showing the bare bones of stratigraphic units, might find its rationale in “the need for uniformity in large projects and wider intelligibility to technical audiences” (48). Anyone piqued by the differences between drawing traditions in European archaeology (e.g., in the 1940s, Bersu’s impressionistic profiles vs. Wheeler’s technical sections) will find this fascinating.

Fash’s article is a general discussion of how the thousands of glass-plate negatives from the 1890s showing Copan’s Hieroglyphic Stairway, together with recent 3D laser scans of its blocks, may help to reorder and reinterpret the latter. In a surprising passage, photographs are held to show “unaltered activities”; moreover, they are “the most ... honest tools to re-present and revive the past” (50–1), with the suggestion (certainly accidental) of some degree of dishonesty on the part of the narrative or drawn record. In her presentation of the Copan Sculpture Museum, Fash expresses her dissatisfaction with virtual reality and argues that the solution is the off-site reconstruction of monuments.

Mesick investigates the roles and limitations of digital technologies in archaeology by telling the story of the 3D map of Classic Maya Piedras Negras in Guatemala, complete with areas of reconstructed architecture (figs. 6.4, 6.5). At stake is “the relevance of concepts such as objectivity, authority, verisimilitude for the production of digital models” (66). The author also discusses how models ought to self-sabotage their in-your-face realism, suggesting they could signal to the viewer that they are just conjectures, by means of “angled contours of the landscape,” “deliberately … garish colors,” or “obviously ‘fake’ textures onto roofs” (81). The intentional introduction of conspicuously nonrealistic elements in archaeological reconstruction deserves further study. Ultimately, the graphic pizzazz of digital models downplays or completely conceals that any number of educated guesses or pro domo choices went into these models; data is often scant and/or ambiguous, and deductive reasoning can only take the archaeologist so far. Mesick’s discussion of the paradoxes of realism will remind archaeologists that this aspiration to be realistic made us embed in many of our models real photographs of dramatic skies over the digital Roman Forum model, or real water videos in Hadrian’s pool, while at the same time having the viewer fly through the model on the trajectory of a tennis serve, certainly unlike anyone’s experience of these sites now or then.

The longest paper in the volume, by Shanks and Webmoor, appears to be republished with minor edits and a different title from their book (with B. Olsen and C. Witmore) Archaeology: The Discipline of Things (Berkeley 2012), recently reviewed by Emerson (AJA 118 [2014] Chapters 8 and 9 bring up yet different perspectives. In his case study, Devaney argues for the use of GIS in mapping medieval pageants during Christmas of 1462 in Spanish Jaén. Although that route is not known with certainty, the author suggests that analyzing such a pageant in its architectural context will increase our knowledge of spectator participation, visibility, and ultimately reaction—this was done for some Roman processions (e.g., D. Favro and C. Johanson, “Death in Motion: Funeral Processions in the Roman Forum,” JSAH 69[1] [2010] 12–37). Witmore discusses maps of Greece and Athens in the past three centuries and recasts archaeological data as a collective achievement (130). Maps are not objective facts (129), and their accuracy can only be assessed as a function of purpose. Indeed, if any visual reconstruction is just a “restrictive interpretation,” as suggested by Delingette (“Bridging the Gap Between Archaeological Datasets and Digital Representations,” in B. Mafart and H. Delingette, eds., Three-Dimensional Imaging in Paleoanthropology and Prehistoric Archaeology [Oxford 2002]), the modeler must choose how that restriction will operate. Is the reconstruction focusing on the building’s earthquake resistance or its daylighting analysis, accompanying a traveling exhibition, being used in undergraduate courses, or currying the favor of excavation sponsors?

Favro’s elegant paper is also a must-read introduction to the subject and might well have been placed at the beginning of the book. Rather than start by extolling the virtues of archaeological reconstructions and then produce some caveats, as often happens, Favro confronts the reader head-on with a list of eye-openers concerning the perils and pitfalls of such work. She includes physical reconstruction (anastylosis subverting “the architectural, topographic and cultural context” [152]), reduced-scale models (with their “totalizing, omniscient point of view” [159]), artist’s-view holistic reconstructions (“rarely reviewed in scholarly journals” [162]), and computer models (“experiential depth in digital reconstruction remains shallow” [168]). What digital models have to offer, among other more evident things, is that they are “easily distributed, promoting retesting and assessment by other scholars” (166).

On the whole, the volume deals not only with academic reconstructions but also with 18th- and 19th-century painters (Smiles) and 20th- and 21st-century artists (Witmore; Shanks and Webmoor), including illustrators (Houston). In an ideal world, it would be mandatory for any archaeological publication to include a visual reconstruction of the site’s architecture. Not in order to wow the public, let alone to encourage handsome reconstructions piggybacked on poor data (see also Favro [164]), but simply because reconstructions (visual as well as narrative) are the crucial test for the archaeologist’s understanding of the site.

Architects (e.g., J. Pallasmaa, The Eyes of the Skin: Architecture and the Senses [London 1996]) and archaeologists (e.g., M. Gillings, “The Real, the Virtually Real and the Hyperreal,” in S. Smiles and S. Moser, eds., Envisioning the Past: Archaeology and the Image [New York 2005]) have criticized the hegemony of vision in the appreciation of built (reconstructed) structures. By the same token, in the present volume (e.g., chs. 6, 7, 9, 10), authenticity as a criterion for evaluating a reconstruction’s success is discarded if understood as mere visual or, more precisely, photorealistic (as opposed to plurisensorial, contextual, and functional) agreement between original and reconstruction, without considering “the life for which the original was intended” (F.K. Yegül, “The Marble Court of Sardis and Historical Reconstruction,” JFA 32 [1976] 171–72).

Here, perhaps, the idea of alternative reconstructions should have been considered. This is recommended in the 2007 International Council on Monuments and Sites Ename Charter for the Interpretation and Presentation of Cultural Heritage Sites (para. 2.4; language such as “the most probable reconstruction” was significantly left out from a previous draft, and the idea was altogether absent from the 1964 Venice charter). Whoever embarks on creating such a model would probably be best advised to present two reconstructions, at the opposite ends of what they consider the range of the possible.

One of the two extremes of the current views of visual reconstruction in archaeology is the positivistic confidence that it “brings the past back to life” (and this, although its proponents would be otherwise bound to dismiss as naïve any historian who sets about showing history “how it really was”). The other is perhaps Baudrillard’s view that reconstruction is a simulacrum, “a truth concealing that there is none,” reflecting the “characteristic hysteria of our time: the hysteria of production and reproduction of the real” (“Simulacra and Simulations,” in M. Poster, ed., Jean Baudrillard: Selected Writings [Cambridge 1988] 166, 180). There is copious variety in between, and the authors gathered here sift through a significant sample of it in their study of this fundamental tool—in fact, nothing short of a double-edged sword—which is visual modeling in archaeology.

Catalin Pavel
Institute of Advanced Study
New Europe College

Book Review of Re-Presenting the Past: Archaeology Through Text and Image, edited by Sheila Bonde and Stephen Houston

Reviewed by Catalin Pavel

American Journal of Archaeology Vol. 119, No. 1 (January 2015)

Published online at

DOI: 10.3764/ajaonline1191.Pavel

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