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Plan Realities: Reconciling the Field Archaeologist’s Visual Recording Practice with the Idea of the Social Image – F.Lynam (2013)

Plan Realities: Reconciling the Field Archaeologist’s Visual Recording Practice with the Idea of the Social Image 

Frank Lynam

BA University of Dublin, MPhil University of Cambridge

2nd year PhD Student University of Dublin


Current theories of perception are divided between those of the natural and cultural schools of thought.[1] Exponents of the former advocate a reality in which the perceiver receives a physically produced and delivered universal message from the object using systems that are largely hard-wired within the brain. These systems are natural in the sense that they are not learnt through the medium of culture and they are universal as they apply to all humanity.

At the other extreme are the cultural relativists who understand the perception of an environment to be entirely a function of context. We see, hear, feel, taste and smell external realities as a function of our learnt responses to physical stimuli. There is nothing universal or positivist about this school of perception. Person 1’s perception of Object A may differ radically from the Person 2’s. In fact, Person 1’s perception of Object A observed one nanosecond after the first perception event may also be different. As such, perception is a cultural construct that is relative to time, place and any other variable that one encounters in existence. The natural school attempts to escape this historical condition of perception.[2]

We can further associate these two approaches to perception with the empirical materialist and cognitive idealist philosophies of experience. The idea that there is an external material reality that can be positively identified and experienced fits in with the psychological reading of perception as being a mechanical or physical receipt of light as reflected from an object which is in turn fed into the brain. The social thesis rejects the idea of this objective reality favouring instead the idealist view that all reality is purely a creation of individual cognition. The phenomenological perspective sits in the middle-ground between these two positions.[3]

Recently, the idealist school of thought has become much the more dominant intellectual trend. The materialist view is held on to by strands of psychology but in the current intellectual climate it is becoming more difficult to justify a reality that is consistent across all humanity and time.[4] The difficulty arises when we consider the implications of the open relativism that the postmodernist view espouses and it is upon these dilemmas that this paper will focus, specifically on the question of how we accommodate this understanding in the context of our use of the plan and section drawing in archaeological field practice.

The Image as a Theoretical Construct

It is first necessary that we define what it is that we mean by the term ‘image’. This definition depends on which school of perception we belong to. For the purposes of this paper we will view perception to be largely a social paradigm. The image then is a construct that is produced as a function of the target object (let us call this its material form) and the potentially infinite contextual variables that affect its creation (let us call this group, culture).

It is now necessary to consider how the created image is read. For this we are confronted with largely the same process. The material form of the image is accessed and interpreted by the perceiver through cultural filters. These two processes, of image creation and consumption are summarised schematically in Fig. 1.

Fig. 1. The creation and consumption of the social image (Author’s creation)

Fig. 1. The creation and consumption of the social image (Author’s creation)

Two concepts are intrinsically linked to the study of images: naturalism and realism. Michael Shanks defines these coherently in the context of archaeological field photographs and this paper will use this explanation for all archaeological image types. Shanks states that an image is naturalistic if it represents external features and that it is considered to be realistic if it conforms to a particular convention set or vocabulary of reality that the perceiver subscribes to.[5] For instance, gravity cannot be ‘real’ without the existence of Newton.[6] We can only attach a ‘realness’ to gravity if it can be understood linguistically using the system which Newton put forward. Bryson reiterates this point stating that ‘realism’ does not refer to any absolute conception of what it is to be ‘real’ because it is a socially produced construct.[7] An image can be both naturalistic and realistic, it can be solely naturalistic, it can be neither and it can be realistic to one perceiver and not so to another. These are all valid possibilities within our understanding of the terms.

Finally, a good example to help explain the process by which we culturally read images is Wittgenstein’s ‘Duck Rabbit’ experiment (Fig. 2.). Wittgenstein presents an image that for apparently inexplicable reasons appears at one point in time to be a rabbit and at another to be a duck. Wittgenstein argues that we do not interpret or infer these realities for the image; we simply see them as such. The cultural reading of images can be seen in these terms. There is no conscious choice being made on the part of the mind whether to read it as a duck or a rabbit. The decision is instantaneous and appears to be natural.

Fig. 2. Fig. 2. The Wittgenstein 'Duck Rabbit' visual experiment (Wittgenstein, 1953)

Fig. 2. The Wittgenstein ‘Duck Rabbit’ visual experiment (Wittgenstein, 1953)

The Visual in Archaeology

The archaeological discipline has from its antiquarian beginnings always maintained a strong link with the visual representational form. There are already a number of engaging works that have considered this subject and this paper will not revisit this well-trodden and written ground.[8] However, it is worth highlighting again that this tradition has stayed constant within the discipline and that the visual form is arguably more prevalent today than it has ever been.

And yet, the place of the image within archaeology is not without its problems or its debate. On a broader scale, the view of the image in academia is often as an ancillary medium for the delivery of information and creation of knowledge and this perspective is still noticeably current in archaeology.[9] In extreme cases, images can be presented within publications as merely an afterthought and one whose sole purpose is to reinforce the content of the text and the tabular data.[10] Recent books on archaeological theory (e.g. see Hodder & Hutson (2003)) have tended to make minimal use of the image.[11] This is surprising considering post-processualism’s claim to be interested in the interpretive approach which is hugely intertwined within the understanding of the image as a social construct.

Despite the passions that the image often engenders in the context of its use in archaeological publication, there is no doubting as to its ubiquity in the field practice of the discipline. The field archaeologist is part excavator, part note-taker and large-part draftsperson. He or she spends a sizeable proportion of their time drawing detailed or sketch plans and taking photographs of the material record. So how exactly is the image as social construct created by the archaeologist working in the field and how does this understanding of the image affect the overall field method?

The Plan and Section Drawing

This type of image has become synonymous with the process of field archaeology.[12] It is constructed using conventions that have emerged over the years in order to give visual form to meanings which are part of the archaeologist’s way of viewing their reality. In fact, some have argued that the image in itself creates meaning that is not, and possibly cannot be, represented by any other medium; as Stephanie Moser puts it in the context of reconstructions of Neanderthal man, the meaning ‘…is not so much summarized as it is actually constituted…’ by the image.[13] This concept is not unique to archaeology as Moser points out, citing the role played by geological maps in the construction of a new visual grammar in an emerging science.[14]

Drawing conventions began to emerge in archaeology by the turn of the 20th century, a development which can be linked to the discipline’s attempt to establish itself as a bona fide science. This development can be seen as analogous to that which Dana Arnold called the ‘intellectualisation of materiality’ that occurred when the neo-classicists of the 16th century committed the classical architectural forms to paper.[15] Arnold highlights in her study of the work of Andrea Palladio the manner in which he recorded architecture firmly within the constraints of the classical forms and orders. For instance, in his recording of the Villa Madama, which had been designed by Raphael, Palladio represented the asymmetrical loggia as being symmetrical because the latter conformed more closely to the Vitruvian ideal.[16] In this sense then we can understand Palladio’s representations to be true to his own reality. This reality was quite different to that of Raphael’s who lived a generation before him.

The production of a schema for drawing plans and sections in archaeology can be seen in these same terms. The philosophy and the practicality of creating and reading a plan or section drawing along with their visual counterpart, the cartographic map, conform to the same thought processes that underlie the work of Palladio and that are found in the notions of reality-creation as outlined by Shanks and Bryson as already discussed. The archaeological plan or section drawing is essentially a product of Western thought. If one were to show an archaeological plan to a non-Westerner who had no prior experience of Western convention, they would probably be unconvinced as to its correspondence to their form of reality. In fact, it is likely that its naturalism (i.e. its relationship to external forms) would also be questioned.

The images shown in Fig. 3 and Fig. 4 represent the same material forms, in this case a linear feature enclosing a space which has been partially removed.[17] I can say that I know these things because I am able to read the two images. I can do this because I am generally proficient in the schema or conventions that the creator of the images has used. It is not significant that the images were created by myself. If I had asked another archaeologist of the Western tradition to record the same material forms he or she would produce a similar image. It would not be identical but it would be identifiable all the same.

Fig. 3. A 'rough' sketch plan including a number of archaeological contexts (Author’s creation)

Fig. 3. A ‘rough’ sketch plan including a number of archaeological contexts (Author’s creation)

Fig. 4. An ‘accurate’ plan of a wall, space and pit context (Author’s creation)

Fig. 4. An ‘accurate’ plan of a wall, space and pit context (Author’s creation)

Let us now look more closely at the construction of these images, considering the choices that were consciously and unconsciously made during their creation. We will then consider the processes involved in their reading. Finally, the difference between the two images will be considered.

Stage 1 – Excavating the material record

The role of the contextual archaeologist is one of interpreter or reader of the material record.[18] Hodder says that the archaeologist must interpret ‘at the trowel’s edge’ meaning that interpretation of the material record must occur not only in the libraries of universities but also in the field as the material record is being removed from the earth.[19]

On this basis, the archaeologist is required to look and observe during excavation. Ideally he will attempt to observe objectively but as we have already discussed this ‘agnostic’ position, as Bradley refers to it,[20] is an impossible goal and so the record will always include traces of his past, present and future.

Stage 2 – Excavational and representational decisions

The archaeologist must make decisions as to what will be included in his plan and how this will be represented. The latter is no longer a variable; we unconsciously follow the conventions of Western archaeological planning without thinking. The former involves choice and again history.

In the case of the representations of the material forms depicted in Fig. 3 and Fig. 4, certain choices have clearly been made. The linear feature is constructed of mud-brick. This has not been labelled on the plan but in spite of this we, the consumers of the image, are in no doubt as to its status as a wall. We know this because we are aware that the ‘wall’ feature exists and we presume that this materiality and idea would have been the same at the time of the feature’s creation. With the decision made, the image creator adds the ‘wall’ feature to the image using conventions that show it to be a wall: it is delineated by a heavy solid line, it is linear, etc. At some point during the excavation process when the decision had been made as to the identity of the wall, the creator subconsciously shifted into a process of wall finding. The role of the image as an end product that demands certainty and conformity to a certain schema should not be underestimated in this transformation. Its specific bounded reality forces the archaeologist to make the decision, to assign taxonomy to the material record.

Next the archaeologist has to add the oblong feature that we, as archaeologists, can identify to be a pit which has been cut into a surface that is enclosed by our wall. We know that this is a pit because the image creator has included hachures to indicate the presence of a significant slope.[21] Again the behaviour of our archaeologist is affected by his experience which channels and directs his excavation of the pit. It is not improbable that his expectations will not be met during the tracing of the feature but the important thing to note is that the excavator is aware of the ‘pit’ concept during this process and that this is affecting both its excavation and its recording.

Stage 3 – Spatial information

Both figures utilise a number of standard geometric informational conventions which are associated with the excavated features. Fig. 4 contains a grid and a scale is noted in both images. Using these two elements the informed viewer is able to accurately reassemble a Cartesian geometric reality of the material forms in his or her head. The viewer is provided with additional information positioning (points A and B in Fig. 4) and orientating (the north arrow in both figures) the plan within the context of the rest of the site. This information may also aid the viewer in locating the plan in the context of the geometrically ordered space of the planet. Three dimensions are suggested to the reader by the inclusion of spot heights along the wall.

The Difference between the Two Images

As we have already mentioned, both Fig. 3 and Fig. 4 represent the same set of material forms and yet they are perceived as being different by their audience. Fig. 3 is considered to be messy or perhaps even impressionistic when compared to Fig. 4 which exudes assuredness and reliability. The reason that I chose to include both was to illustrate how consumers equate authority and credibility with images that adhere most strictly to the set of conventions that are in operation.[22] Shanks makes the same point about the archaeological report.[23] It attains more authority if its ‘rhetoric’ conforms better to a recognisable style. Ironically, the contents of Fig. 3 or of the messily produced site report may be more valuable to the consumer in different ways.

Determinism, Free Will and their Perception

Archaeologists trade in generalities. While it is currently in vogue to talk about humanity’s capacity to make its own decisions, it is clear from the previous example that field excavators expect and operate best in conditions where determinism is seen as the rule. Archaeologists are puzzle-solvers but in order to be successful at this, they must assume that most of that which they encounter in the field conforms to general laws of human behaviour.[24] Free will in the material record is problematic and tends to be shunted aside as an anomaly and the image creation process reinforces this realpolitik of field practice.

In an interesting perspective on the topic, Richard Bradley proposes that archaeological interpretation and representation is built upon traditions of craft archaeology.[25] The men and women who form these traditions learn to see in particular ways through their field experience. They then take these new ways of seeing and disseminate them among their colleagues throughout their careers. Bradley mischievously suggests that the ‘discovery of new types’ of material culture in real terms represents the manifestation of archaeologists learning to see in different ways.[26] Consider by way of illustration the ‘discovery’ of mudbrick architecture by Robert Koldewey and Walter Andrae at Babylon in 1899 and at Assur a few years later.[27]

Concluding Remarks

Scholars have for some time highlighted the unique ability of the image in presenting a singular and instantaneous view of reality that is beyond the scope of its textual equivalent.[28] How can this statement be true if we accept that the image is a social construct? Surely this understanding implies that all images are open to multiple readings which are dependent on the social context of the reading event? The filter that pulls us back from this state of open relativism is the system of the convention. Conventions or styles operate at the moment of image creation and consumption establishing an epistemological authority in which the discourse can occur. In archaeological field practice we have seen that an excavator’s understanding and awareness of these archaeological belief systems channel their on-site activities including the ways in which they create images. The consumer of the archaeological image is similarly constrained by these conventions. Just as Palladio saw symmetry where there was none so too does the archaeologist see space and form where there is a sheet of paper covered in otherwise abstract shapes and figures.


Adkins and R. Adkins, 1989, Archaeological Illustration, Cambridge

Arnold, 2005, ‘Unlearning the Images of Archaeology’ in S. Smiles  and S. Moser (eds), Envisioning the Past: Archaeology and the Image, Malden, MA,  pp 92-114.

Bradley, 1997, ‘To See is to Have Seen: Craft Traditions in British Field Archaeology’, in B. Molyneaux (ed), The Cultural Life of Images: Visual Representation in Archaeology, London,  pp 62-72

Bryson, 1983, Vision and Painting: The Logic of the Gaze, London

Costall, 1997, ‘Things, and Things Like Them’, in B. Molyneaux (ed), The Cultural Life of Images: Visual Representation in Archaeology. London, pp 49-61

Hodder, 1999, The Archaeological Process: An Introduction, Oxford

Hodder and S. Hutson, 2003, Reading the Past(3rd edition), Cambridge

James, 1997, ‘Drawing Inferences’, in B. Molyneaux (ed), The Cultural Life of Images: Visual Representation in Archaeology, London, pp 22-48.

Molyneaux (ed), 1997, The Cultural Life of Images: Visual Representation in Archaeology, London

Moser, 1992, The Visual Language of Archaeology: A Case Study of the Neanderthals, Antiquity, Vol. 66, No. 253, pp 831-844.

Piggott, 1978, Antiquity Depicted: Aspects of Archaeological Illustration, London

Pollock, 1999, Ancient Mesopotamia, Cambridge

Shanks, 1997, ‘Photography and Archaeology’, in B. Molyneaux (ed), The Cultural Life of Images: Visual Representation in Archaeology. London, pp 73-107

Smiles and S. Moser (eds), 2005, Envisioning the Past: Archaeology and the Image, Malden, MA

C.Y. Tilley, 1994. A Phenomenology of Landscape: Places, Paths and Monuments, Oxford

B.G. Trigger, 1996, A History of Archaeological Thought (2nd ed), Cambridge

Wittgenstein, 1953, Philosophical Investigations(rev. 4th ed), Chichester

[1] Costall 1997, 49

[2] Bryson 1983, 13

[3] Tilley 1994, 13

[4] Costall 1997

[5] Shanks 1997, 78

[6] Shanks 1997, 83

[7] Bryson 1983, 13

[8] Piggott 1978; Adkins and Adkins 1989, chap.1; Moser 1992; Trigger 1996; Arnold 2005, 4-6

[9] Moser 1992, 833

[10] Molyneaux 1997, 3-4; James 1997, 24; Bradley 1997, 1

[11] Bradley 1997, 71

[12] Adkins and Adkins 1989, chap.4

[13] Moser 1992, 837

[14] Moser 1992, 833

[15] Arnold 2005, 99

[16] Arnold 2005, 106

[17] Note that Fig. 3 and Fig. 4 represent a fictitious set of material forms.

[18] Hodder and Hutson 2003, 166-170

[19] Hodder 1999, 83

[20] Bradley 1997, 62

[21] Adkins and Adkins 1989, 67

[22] James 1997, 26

[23] Shanks 1997, 82

[24] Trigger 1996, 508-519

[25] Bradley 1997

[26] Bradley 1997, 65

[27] Pollock 1999, 16-17

[28] Molyneaux 1997, 6; James 1997, 26; Moser 1992, 838; Adkins and Adkins 1989, 132


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