Rückwege – Archaeology of the Silvretta at “Visualisation in Archaeology”

Archaeology has always had its own visual vocabulary. We show our research results to our colleagues and to the wider public. This can, at the danger of simplification, often be divided into two categories: 1.) the dokumentation of the research results (plans, finds, tables etc.); and 2.) those visualisations that convey our interpretations (e.g. reconstruction drawings).

If we take the accurate visual representation of lithics (chipped stone tools) research, Martingell and Saville (Martingell and Saville 1988; Saville 2009) for example, argue we should that we should attempt to include as much factual information, mainly on technology, in drawings. Saville (2009, p.750) also includes, rightly I believe, use wear results in this.

However, like with most visualisations, it is, e.g. difficult to use this style of illustration to represent the dynamic, non-linear character of technology. Riede (Riede 2006, fig. 6, p62) tries to represent an evolutionary chaîne opératoire – artefactontogenies and phylogenies – and as such also the dynamic nature of technology in a figure. Although it is not a bad attempt, it is still rather linear. I fear that most people, including archaeologists, who are not in detail familiar with these ideas, see little more then another representation of the classic reduction sequences he tries so hard to avoid. This is especially the case as I expect that for many researchers the idea of an evolutionary chaîne opératoire is rather counter intuitive.

I have not seen any really satisfying examples of illustrations showing the dynamic nature of technology or an evolutionary chaîne opératoire. I’d be really interested in hearing about any you have come across.

This, of course, only speaks to the professional. It’s also our job as archaeologists to understand our finding beyond typology and interpret our factual research results and tell a human story. And is it not also important to show how we come to these results, the technologies and methods we use, our own biases, our own Zeitgeist?

Even though text remains the main medium by which we make our work public, archaeology has since its earliest beginnings used illustrations, drawings, etchings, watercolours etc. and later photography to present their discoveries. There are some very beautiful and fascinating examples of this and it is by looking at these earliest depictions that we most readily realise how these illustrations show not only our discoveries, but they also say so much about their makers and the world they lived in. This is undoubtedly still the case with the visualisations we produce now.

The initiators of VIA are continuing archaeology’s search for a contemporary and satisfying way of visually representing our work. Their work tells us how the choices of how we decide to visualise archaeology, influences how we, archaeologists, and the wider public see the past and our own archaeological activities. VIA provides a platform for archaeologists and artists concerning themselves with these issues through Workshops and conferences, a continually growing online bibliography, a website and a research showcase. They do a great job of making this work public for anyone to see and in bringing people together, spreading ideas and awareness.

Thomas Reitmaier and I are therefore very pleased to have been able to support and join their initiative by publishing The High Mountain Archaeology – Visualising the Silvretta on the VIA research show case.

It’s also worth having a quick look at the site of the Scientific Visualisation degree (ZHDK, Zürich, Switzerland) who are also involved in the project. Another link:  Es muss nicht immer eine Gletscherleiche sein. Incl. video!

P.S. A little after note: now what do you think about this?


I’m looking forwards to those articles.


Martingell, H. and A. Saville (1988). The illustration of lithic artefacts: a guide to drawing stone tools for specialist reports, Lithic Studies Society & Association of Archaeological Illustrators & Surveyors.

Riede, F. (2006). “Chaîne Opératoire – Chaîne Evolutionaire. Putting technological sequences in evolutionary context.” Archaeological Review from Cambridge 21(1): 50-75.

Saville, A. (2009). The illustration of Mesolithic artefacts and its contribution to the understanding of Mesolithic technology. Mesolithic Horizons. S. McCartan, R. Schulting, G. Warren and P. Woodman. Oxford, Oxbowbooks. 2: 745-753.

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