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Pencils and Pixels: New Perspectives on Digital Illustration

On Friday, I read with great excitement Colleen Morgan and Holly Wright’s very recent article in the Journal of Field Archaeology titled “Pencils and Pixels: Drawing and Digital Media in Archaeological Field Recording” (and here too). It’s worth reading for quite a few reasons, but I want to highlight a little gaggle of observations here (that don’t entirely reflect the scope and character of the article, but do represent my own interests in it).

1. The Heroic Archaeologists. A few years ago, I became enamored with the idea that there was a heroic age of archaeology based on a bit of a cheap parallel with the heroic age of science. These heroic archaeologists have names that are associated with their notebooks (Blegen’s notebook), their sites (Wheeler’s excavation at the Great Palace), and who game name and form to their discoveries (Schlieman’s discovery of Priam’s Gold). To this we can add, following Morgan and Wright, their plans and drawings like Aubrey’s drawing of Avebury and Wheeler’s illustration of Segontium.

Morgan and Wright complicate this, of course, by pointing out that these drawings did not always spring from the impartial pens of master excavators, but from rather less known draftsmen, associates, and even, as in Wheeler’s case, the archaeologist’s wife.  Indeed, the work of Pitt-Rivers, Piggot, and Wheeler was informed by industrial, or in some cases, military practices and organization of labor which involved specialists with specialized skills, but also preserved elements of the “heroic archaeologists” vision of both methods and the sites themselves. In other words, even my heroic archaeologists, with their elegant and idiosyncratic, and sometimes signed illustrations, represent an already industrialized organization of archaeological practice (one that nevertheless allowed for a good deal of latitude and imagination, as Kostis Kourelis has recently noted regarding Georg Vinko von Peschke’s work around Corinth). In fact, the tension between the elegant plans and industrial practices are a defining feature of early 20th century archaeology.

2. The Ethnography of Archaeological Practice. One of the key strengths to this article is that Morgan and Wright draw effectively on the small, but growing body of work on the ethnography of contemporary archaeological practices. By using not only their own experiences as well as the immensely valuable and overlooked work of Matthew Edgeworth and others (although oddly not Mary Leighton’s work, which I’ve found very useful), they enter into the every day practices that define archaeological knowledge make at the edge of the trowel or the click of the mouse. 

This kind of work is not only incredibly important for understand how the tools that we use shape the knowledge that we produce, but also lays bare the complex and – to my mind – often problematic world that our technologies inhabit. The affordances that condition our use of digital tools are increasingly complicit in dense entanglements of exploitative practices in ways in which writing in a notebook or drawing on a piece of graph paper are not. This isn’t to suggest that the latter is beyond reproach or innocent, but to point our that what we do and how we do it constantly forces us to embody a dense organism of political, economic, social, and cultural relationships that do have consequences. The shift from analogue practice in the field to digital practices may or may not be a paradigm shift in terms of the incommensurability of knowledge, but, I’d argue, does reflect a paradigm shift in terms of practice and the range of affordances that shape those practices. Greater attention to practice, then, in the field allows us to unpack these relationships in productive and, to me, socially responsible ways.

(What’s more, here, is that Morgan and Wright have some of the ethnographic details to back up the sort of idealized generalizations that have tended to inform my work on slow archaeology. What I write, seems “right” based on my memories and experiences, but it certainly doesn’t have the rigor to support it that genuine ethnographic practice would 

3. Embodied Knowledge. On Saturday, I read a copy of a paper that Ömür Harmanşah generously provided that, in thoughtful ways, explored the significance of embodied knowledge, informed by the senses, in archaeological practice (among other things). Morgan and Wright’s treatment of the embodied knowledge of drawing in the field articulates in really smart ways ideas that I’ve struggled to understand over the past five years. Not only is the act of drawing with a pen or pencil on paper an act with definable and distinct cognitive significant, but it also opens onto ways of seeing archaeological contexts that more efficient, more streamlined, and invariably more digital methods do not support.

I like this way of thinking because reflects my experiences, particularly after this summer when I spent time documenting a series of fortifications on the basis of drone photography and structure-from-motion and ortho-rectified photographs. In some of my 20th century archaeological work, I worked with archaeologists who taught me how to illustrate by hand and it was tedious, long, hot work that provided remarkable (and sometimes illusory) familiarity with buildings. In contrast, drawing from a ortho-rectified series of drone photographs allowed me to produce a detailed plan much more quickly than work in the field and also made it much easier to scale my encounter with the site (i.e. by zooming out for context or zooming in for a detail), but I certainly feel less familiar with the site. Again, some of this a sense of familiarity may not be real (and I can’t help but extend the sense of possession, paralleling, perhaps, the work of heroic archaeologists, of a site where I spent countless hours drawing stones), to my sense of detachment from a site that I visited 8 or 10 times to ground-truth plans drawn from drones. 

The sense of place that develops from the act of manual drawing and illustration goes well beyond (in probably crazy ways) what Morgan and Wright explore in their article and is probably an effort to make their article into something that I want to say, but to me, at least, it is a useful point of departure for continued musing on the rise of digital field practices.  

For my work on these topics go here and here.


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